There are some things about Newtown’s profound loss on 12/14 that the community would prefer to keep from prying eyes. As demolition experts worked to dismantle the old Sandy Hook School over the past week, the town tried to thwart those who wanted to witness the community’s private pain as this wounded place was stripped bare. But the vast stretches of opaque barriers and all the iron-clad nondisclosure requirements for those working on the site were not enough to block the unblinking gaze of the media’s video cameras hovering overhead in helicopters. There are too many things that people still want to see here that we wish could remain out of sight. Conversely, there are things unseen lingering from 12/14 that we wish people would pay closer attention to — now and for decades to come.
Newtown’s great unseen wound is the continuing toll the tragedy assesses on the mental health of people living here — not just those who suffered profound personal loss as a result of this crime, or the first-responders who confronted their worst nightmares that terrible day — but also the so-called “lucky” ones who have escaped that level of suffering. The pervasive stress that settled on the town after 12/14 may escape the notice of visitors. Townspeople feel it as they slowly work through their own responses to what happened, or worry about their children, family members, or neighbors who continue to have a more difficult time with it. The stress levels rise not only with the nerve-rattling chop of a helicopter overhead but also with the random thought in the quiet moment. And with the town’s emergent ethos of strength, resilience, and transformation, there comes a temptation for some to keep this wearing aspect of life hidden away. Over time it becomes a destructive sort of voluntary nondisclosure.
Fortunately, Newtown has many mental health professionals offering an array of services that have been honed over the past ten months to respond to the urgent mental health needs of the community. And to help ensure access to this network of help when and where it is needed, temporary sources of funding have been made available through many generous grants and donations. But continuing access, in most cases, will depend how successful individuals are in getting coverage for mental health services through their health insurance companies.
In the wake of 12/14, legislators in Hartford heard parents testify that getting coverage for mental health services through insurance companies was an exercise in frustration. The insurers, they were told, seemed more interested in blocking access to services rather than facilitating it. It is not so much that insurance companies are malevolent, however. They are bureaucracies, with great appetites for process and information that tend to overwhelm individuals and families already struggling with the challenges of mental health problems.
Last week, the state’s Insurance Department came to the assistance of those trying to secure mental health services by releasing a “toolkit” that offers guidance on how to work with their health insurers to get the coverage they need. (See story.) The toolkit, developed in cooperation with the UConn Health Center and insurance companies, includes questions to ask, information to gather, and tips on appealing denied claims.
While mental health treatments and therapies are, and should remain, confidential matters, the mental health of our community is not something we should lose sight of. The more tools we have to ensure that mental health problems are not hidden away, kept out of sight, and ultimately ignored, the better our prospects for realizing the strength, resilience, and transformation we have set as our goals.