Christine Stuart photo
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey (Christine Stuart photo)

A 20-member task force created following the Sandy Hook school shooting has finalized 47 recommendations to improve behavioral health services for young adults.

The report released during a press conference Tuesday was due in January, but the task force was given more time to tackle the complex issues associated with mental health for individuals between the ages of 16 and 25 years old, according to Sen. Terry Gerratana, D-New Britain.

“The task force was given an overwhelming mandate,” Dr. Daniel Connor, who co-chaired the task force, said Tuesday. “The issues were enormously complicated. The issues by the task force membership were passionately held and cogently argued and it was simply impossible to meet the deadline.”

Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, said the deadline was somewhat arbitrary because the mandate from House Speaker Brendan Sharkey was to get the job done right.

“Let’s do it right, not fast,” Wood said quoting Sharkey.

After nearly a year of meetings, the task force concluded that the current system of behavioral health and substance abuse treatment programs don’t work well for young adults and their families.

Twenty-nine of the recommendations address the issues of the behavioral health workforce capacity, several more address access to behavioral health services, and the rest deal with issues of rights for people with mental health issues.

The hope is that the recommendations in the report will be turned into legislation during the 2015 session.

Even after the release of the police report, 911 tapes, and prosecutors report, it’s unclear what mental health services the 20-year-old gunman may have been able to access or if there was anything that could have prevented the massacre of 20 first graders and six educations. There have been reports that he was taken to the Yale Child Studies Center in 2006 and diagnosed with autism. At some point between 2006 and 2007 he stopped taking an antidepressant, but there’s little known beyond that.

However, figuring out exactly what motivated the Newtown gunman was left up to another commission, not the one that released the report Tuesday.

“The relationship between gun violence and mental illness in society is complex,” Connor said. “An effective and accessible pediatric and young adult mental health system is a very important piece of any solution to this important problem in society. However, the issue is very complicated.”

He said “it appears true that among a small number of people with certain severe mental health disorders, there is a six to seven times greater likelihood of violent suicide or self-injury. It is also true that the overwhelming vast majority of individuals with mental illness do not engage in violence in society.”

Even if you could get rid of all mental illness in society, Connor said “90 to 97 percent of violent behaviors in society would remain.”

Asked if the release of the report would satisfy Second Amendment enthusiasts who contend the Sandy Hook tragedy was related to mental health issues and not firearms, Sharkey said he didn’t know.

“First of all, you have to ask them,” Sharkey said. “Secondly, when we engaged in this process 18 months ago we did this on a bipartisan basis.”

He said the creation of the task force in the Sandy Hook legislation was not to “appease or reply to any particular group, but rather to make sure we were getting it right.”

In Connecticut, about 10 percent of adolescents and young adults ages 16 to 25 years have experienced at least one episode of a major depressive disorder in the past year, about 20-25 percent of trauma exposed youth will meet current mental health diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorders, 6 to 9 percent have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and between 8 percent of adolescents and up to 24 percent of young adults will report alcohol and/or illicit drug use within the past year.

“There exists a substantial public mental health burden in Connecticut for children, adolescents, young adults, and their families with early onset psychiatric and mental health disorders,” Connor said.

What would a system that serves this population cost?

Dr. Sheryl Ryan, the other co-chair of the task force, said that in order to improve the system for adolescents and young adults it would take a “huge amount of money.”

Ryan didn’t put a dollar figure on it, but she said they didn’t only look at things they thought could be done. She said they looked at the entire universe of services that could be provided.

“What you see are really recommendations that speak to the whole problem recognizing that some of them are going to be able to be put in place with less money than others,” Ryan said.

Sharkey said both Republicans and Democrats have recognized that this needs to become a higher priority in the state.

“How far we can go financially I speak to today,” Sharkey said. “We have all committed ourselves, on both sides of the aisle as well as in the governor’s office, to do everything that we can to dedicate more resources to this effort. We just needed a blueprint for where that money was best spent.”