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Mental health key to safety

December 20, 2012
By Anna Patrick - Staff Writer , The Inter-Mountain

Editor's note: The following is part of a series of articles reporting on local reaction to the tragic school shooting in Connecticut Dec. 14.

The horrendous massacre in Connecticut has millions questioning how a human being could commit such a terrible crime against humanity.

Adam Lanza's unexplainable acts have pushed discussions of mental health into the spotlight, as it would seem nearly impossible for a person in a stable mental state to commit such a horrific crime.

Longtime Elkins primary care practitioner Frank Cuda said mental health treatment has been historically underfunded and underemphasized in our country.

Cuda pointed to examples including insurance companies where a patient might receive full coverage for a physical condition or illness, but only receive a portion of coverage for mental health treatment.

In order to break down the barrier between the way America's society views physical health treatment and mental health treatment, perceptions need to shift, he said. Cuda said over the course of his 30-year career he counseled patients who often felt ashamed or guilty for mental health hardships.

"A lot of people feel real guilty if they are depressed, nervous or they have obessive compulsive disorder," Cuda said. "I try to tell them if you have diabetes and your body doesn't make enough insulin you don't blame yourself for that. You just put the insulin in and try to get better." This should be the same approach for mental health issues, he said.

"If your body doesn't produce enough dopamine levels or if you have a struggle dealing with stress there is nothing to be ashamed of," Cuda said. "It's not your fault. You just need to find the right medication or the right counseling to help you function better in society."

Cuda said the only way to help individuals struggling with a mental illness is by learning to be more accepting.

"A lot of people are afraid of people with mental illness. You can't help people if you are afraid of it. You've got to be able to embrace them and say, 'It's ok.'"

Tammie Rizzio, the lead therapist at Youth Health Services, Inc. in Elkins, agreed.

"There has not been enough emphasis placed on mental health in our society," Rizzio said. When an internal issue begins to affect a person's day-to-day life that is a clear indicator that it is time to seek help, she said.

"Sometimes we can deal with it (on our own). Some things you need help with. It's OK," Rizzio said.

As a therapist, Rizzio serves children ages two to 18 on a day-to-day basis by providing a variety of therapies. When providing therapy to children, Rizzio emphasizes a holistic approach, which involves the family, school and a form of therapy.

She said parents are the most important link in the chain. The only way that parents can recognize if their child's behavior is out of the ordinary is by knowing what normal behavior is for their child. Parents need to spend significant bonding time with their child. Rizzio encouraged parents to talk to their children and ask them questions every day when they get home from school.

"Parents need to be in tune when something does go wrong (and) the only way to do that is to have close bonds," Rizzio said.

A great indicator that something may be wrong is when a child is unwilling to communicate. Often the most important things affecting children will be left unsaid because they are uncertain of how to articulate their concerns or are even ashamed of the feelings they are experiencing.

The establishment of bonds and friendships among children is very important as well, Rizzio said. She advised parents to notice if their children are developing healthy bonds with members of their peers. If those bonds are not being created that is a red flag that something may not be right.

Rizzio's advice to parents who might have questions or concerns related to their child's mental health or development is, "It's safer to err on the side of caution."

Nonprofit organizations like Youth Health Services are in place to assist parents and families during times of struggle and uncertainty. Therapists, like Rizzio, are happy to help families and children by working in the home, in schools and through sessions at Youth Health Services located on Harrison Avenue in Elkins. For more information call 304-636-9450.



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