A legislative committee charged with addressing the state’s mental health system after the Sandy Hook shooting heard Tuesday from a Sandy Hook mother who was all too familiar with systemic problems in the state’s mental health system.
Jennifer Maksel’s son, Bryce, was one of the children lucky enough to walk out of teacher Victoria Soto’s classroom without physical injury on Dec. 14 when a shooter blasted his way into the Newtown elementary school killing 20 students and six educators, including Soto.
But Bryce wasn’t the son Maskel came to tell lawmakers about during a public hearing at the Legislative Office Building. Rather, she came to talk about her oldest son, who is in the seventh grade and has a “battery” of mental health diagnoses.
She made an emotional appeal to lawmakers for help in getting her son appropriate services. Maskel said she has been trying for more than nine years to get her son services for his Asperger’s syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and a host of other mental illnesses.
“He is abusive to his family. He is abusive to his brothers when he doesn’t get his own way,” she said.
Maksel said that when she lived in Maine, educators put her son in a special preschool that suited him well. However, when she moved back Connecticut she began having trouble getting services.
She said Mary Sherlach, the Sandy Hook school psychologist who was killed in the shooting, attempted to help her get services but she kept facing qualification questions.
“They kept on saying ‘If he qualifies. If he qualifies. If he qualifies for services.’” she said. “I had a stack full of documents from Maine of all the services he got. And you don’t mess with a seven-month pregnant women. I was pregnant with Bryce and I stood up and said ‘It’s not an ‘if,’ it’s a ‘when,’ and don’t mess with me.’”
Later, Maksel said Sherlach told her that her son would qualify but “we’re told to say ‘if.’” She said over the years her son has gotten educational services but not social services. She said he doesn’t know how to talk to people and has no friends.
Maksel said her son behaves himself in school but when he gets home he will hit his younger brothers for no reason.
“He has no empathy when he hits his brother,” she said.
She told lawmakers she was afraid that her son’s condition was getting worse and offered to show lawmakers a bruise he’d given her recently.
“I don’t want another tragedy. Do I think he would do it? I don’t think so. But who knows?” she said.
Maksel said she is constantly hearing that the school system does not have the resources to treat her son’s social conditions.
“I don’t know. I think I just need help. I don’t know what else to say,” she said through tears.
“I think you’ve said it pretty well. Thank you,” Rep. Terrie Wood, the committee’s co-chairwoman, said.
Maksel was one of many to tell lawmakers about the shortcomings of the state’s mental health system as they look to craft a legislative response to the shooting.
At the outset of the hearing Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven told the committee they should be sure their eventual recommendations do not further stigmatize mental illness in a way that could discourage people from seeking help.
Harp said statistics show that people suffering from mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than they are the perpetrators.
The committee will not know about what, if any, mental illness was suffered by the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook shooting. He killed himself after going on a shooting rampage that took the lives of 20 students, six educators, and his mother.
The law enforcement investigation into the incident likely won’t be finished until the summer and the committee is tasked with making recommendations by mid-February.
Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Patricia Rehmer said that when mass shootings occur, people often make the assumption that the murderer was suffering from some mental illness.
“We do not have any information about the mental health or any mental health issues of the shooter in the Newtown tragedy . . . We know nothing about that and I think it’s really important to say that repeatedly,” she said.
State Healthcare Advocate Vicki Veltri told the committee that mental illness is more common than people tend to believe. She said one in every five people have symptoms of a mental illness and one in 20 have a severe illness.
While people sometimes assume those suffering from severe afflictions like schizophrenia are the most likely group to commit acts of violence, Rehmer said that isn’t the case.
“The people who — interestingly enough, I was shocked — that perpetrate the most violence are individuals who suffer from depression,” she said, adding that substance abuse disorders also raise the risk.
Rehmer said mental health care providers are constantly assessing the risk of violence in their patients but she said it is difficult to predict who might become violent.
“The ability to predict violence is very, very limited. I think if you spoke with our forensic psychiatrists, who are probably doing this the most, they will tell you that you can do a very lengthy risk assessment and still not in any 100 percent way predict risk,” she said.
Several speakers told the committee that people with public health insurance plans like Medicare and Medicaid were far more likely to get the mental health care they require than those with their own private insurance plans.
Veltri said that is because private insurers do not cover many of evidence-based programs that are offered by the state, which have been shown to prevent the need for crisis care. She said behavioral health clinical complaints were the most common complaint received by the Office of the Healthcare Advocate.
“It’s been that way as long as I have been there, which is seven years, and every year it increases,” she said.
Veltri said the state has some ability to dictate to insurance companies what sorts of treatments should be covered, but only with regard to the plans the state regulates. She said those plans make up only a fraction of the plans offered in Connecticut.
“Many people in Connecticut are covered by plans that our state just does not regulate. The federal government regulates them. So even if we wanted to have some kind of control over those plans, we can’t,” she said.
Keith Stover, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Association of Health Plans, said the insurance companies want to he a helpful part of the process.
He said the biggest part of that is: How do we improve access?
Also, what works? The substance abuse treatment that works for one person, may not work for another person.
“It’s not an, ‘If we just do this?’” then the person will get better, Stover said. “There are a lot of moving parts to this and we should look at the system as a whole. It’s a systemic problem.”