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County health officials seek focus on gun issues

(MCT) — BLOOMINGTON — The tragedy in a Connecticut elementary school has resonated with people around the world as they grapple with how the most innocent of victims could become targets of a gunman armed with a weapon designed for the military.

At statehouses and the U.S. Capitol, officials are calling for a ban on assault rifles and a renewed focus on the access potentially unstable people have to firearms. In the wake of the shootings that left 26 dead, McLean County mental health, law enforcement and public health officials have been reflecting on the vulnerability a community faces when guns fall into the wrong hands.

“As I watched the TV coverage of it, I looked at the situation and realized that it could be our town. It could happen anywhere,” said Lee Harper, a counselor at Tri-Valley High School in Downs.

Harper supports a statement drafted last week by leaders in the behavioral health community that asks federal and state legislators to outlaw assault weapons and to set new standards for violence for the entertainment industry.

Eric Goplerud, past president of the American College of Mental Health Administration, said the letter, which he co-wrote, outlines steps to help prevent the next gun tragedy.

“We’re calling for attention to the things we know are effective. We need to build community mental health up again. Two-thirds of people with moderate mental illness never get treatment,” said Goplerud.

Gun violence in America, he said, should be considered “a public health problem.”

The Newtown tragedy can be a catalyst for an important national conversation on the easy access people have to guns and the barriers people have to mental health services, agreed McLean County Public Health Director Walt Howe.

“This gives us some platform to increase the discussion on how an unfunded mental health system certainly plays a role in what’s going on with gun violence,” said Howe.

Recognizing the signs

Communities need to be places of safety and refuge, rather than fear, said mental health leaders.  Part of providing that support is educating people to recognize the signs of mental illness so help can be offered before a tragedy unfolds.

Harper favors additional training for teachers who often are the first to notice a change in a student’s behavior.

“We can tell if a kid is going through a rough spot. Sometimes it sneaks up on you. You see them every day but it can be a gradual change,” she said.

Making a connection with a mental health professional qualified to work with children isn’t always easy in McLean County.

At the Center for Human Services, counseling for children and psychiatric services has been reduced because of budget cuts, though efforts are under way to restore some of those services, said Tom Barr, the center’s executive director.

“All the solutions require funding so services can be purchased for this population. It’s up to the community and the state to decide if they want to back that up with funding,” said Barr.

At McLean County Unit 5 schools, teachers initiated a screening process this year to determine if a students’ behavior required intervention. Students also are referred to guidance counselors and school workers based on the screening information and requests from parents, said Unit 5 spokeswoman Dayna Brown.

Gun safety

Recognizing that guns are in many area homes, the McLean County Sheriff’s Department also is offering free gun safety kits that include gun locks and information about the importance of keeping firearms properly stored.

The Newtown shooting is yet another reminder that access to guns must be controlled, said Lt. Mike Kline, who serves on the department’s firearms instructors team with Sgt. Hadley Welsch.

“We want people to be responsible gun owners,” said Kline.

“Gun safety is always an important topic but right now it’s in the forefront of everyone’s mind,” added Welsch.

The kits may be picked up at the sheriff’s department office at the Law and Justice Center in downtown Bloomington.

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