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Legislators begin to focus on mental health, gun violence link

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published 02/28/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 02/28/2013 12:47 AM

Hartford - Once again, just two months after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a community is dealing with deadly gun violence that may be related to mental illness.

When Debra Denison, 47, of Stonington and her two grandsons were found fatally shot in her van after an Amber Alert search Tuesday, police said they found a revolver at the scene. They are investigating the deaths as a murder-suicide.

Friends and relatives said Wednesday that Denison suffered from mental illness but that there were no warning signs that day.

"Her family, somebody should have known that she had access to a gun," said state Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, who is a co-chairman of the legislature's Mental Health Services Working Group.

The legislature's working groups and a panel commissioned by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy each are looking at ways to prevent another Sandy Hook tragedy. Some of the working groups are getting ready to address the intersection of mental illness and access to guns.

The Gun Violence Prevention Working Group likely will propose that all weapons and ammunition in a home be stored and locked in separate places, Harp said.

The Mental Health Services Working Group will offer ways to strengthen the gun permit application process, she said. Currently, Connecticut's pistol permit application asks whether someone has been confined to a hospital for mental illness by order of a probate court within the last 12 months. The working group wants to expand that time period to five years, Harp said.

The working group also wants to add a question to the pistol permit application that asks whether anyone in the household is under the care of a mental health professional, she said. If so, the person seeking the permit would need to state a plan to ensure that the gun is in a safe place.

The working group also thinks Mental Health First Aid, which trains people such as teachers, administrators and parents to recognize mental illness signs, and School Based Health Centers, which provide services to students, are important for prevention, Harp said.

The state budget Malloy has proposed for the fiscal year starting July 1 would cut back on funding for school health clinics to save the state $5.4 million over the next two years. Some legislators and a Sandy Hook Advisory Commission member have said they don't understand how the governor can say he is in favor of mental health services and at the same time cut such programs.

The centers are a place for children and families to seek help, Harp said.

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said the school health centers could provide help for the whole community and help reduce the stigma of mental illness.

Adding school-based health center locations is good but "not critical," said Benjamin Barnes, secretary of the state Office of Policy and Management, on Wednesday.

"I am not going to say they don't need or benefit from them," he said. "We didn't think, with the large spending cuts, we could support new programs."

"The core programs are providing health care to children … and we do it through the HUSKY program," he said. Connecticut's HUSKY Health program offers coverage to eligible children, parents, relative caregivers, elders, individuals with disability, adults without children and pregnant women, according to its website.

Generally speaking, Barnes said, the administration worked to prevent existing programs from losing money, as opposed to new programs.

"It's a question of priorities," Barnes said.

Kathleen Flaherty, a member of the governor's Sandy Hook Advisory Commission and staff attorney for Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut, said in an email that she couldn't comment on the North Stonington incident. But she recently testified before the Appropriations Committee against eliminating new school-based health clinics.

"It saddens me that the governor's budget proposes eliminating funding for school-based health centers in the wake of what happened in Newtown in December," according to Flaherty's written testimony. "On the one hand, he talks about the need for additional mental health services, especially for our young people … so this really makes no sense."

The centers provide young people access to physical and mental health and oral health services, according to the Connecticut Association of School Based Health Centers' website. There are 75 centers in the state, and about 44,000 students are served, according to the website. The program has been in existence for 27 years.

Harp said she was going to try to keep the 22 new School Based Health Centers that the governor proposed eliminating.

"I would argue that assuring that we have those kinds of services is even more important than some of the other increases that were made in the governor's budget," Harp said.

j.somers@theday.com

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