Twenty seven wooden angels stand in a yard down the street from the Sandy Hook School December 16, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Families and doctors who treat the mentally ill say they hope that Friday's tragedy in Newtown, Conn., will refocus the nation's attention on improving mental health services.
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Police have not yet released details about the motives or mental state of shooter Adam Lanza. But the perpetrators of similar mass murders -- at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University and a Tucson gathering for Rep. Gabby Giffords, for example -- all suffered from serious mental health conditions.
"We wait for things like this to happen and then everyone talks about mental health," says Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, an associate professor of psychology in the psychiatry department at Georgetown University Medical Center. "But they quickly forget."
There are hundreds of multiple-casualty shootings every year, says forensic psychologist Dewey Cornell, director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project. People have become so desensitized to the horror, however, that they pay no attention.
"It's gotten to the point where only the ones with high body counts make the news," he says. "It takes a record number, or something extraordinary, to get our attention."
Yet mental illness destroys countless lives everyday, he says, contributing to domestic violence and child abuse, drug addiction, homelessness and incarceration. Investing in mental health care and reducing its stigma could help prevent future tragedies, he says.
"Mental health has shrunk down to the level of short-term crisis management," Cornell says. "If we are going to focus on prevention, we can't think about the gunman in the parking lot and what to do with him. We have to get involved a lot earlier."
Schools and communities "have cut their mental health services to the bone," says Cornell. "We're paying a price for it as a society."