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Johnson: More focus needed on mental illness


Tandy Wilson, left, talks with David Johnson, director of Baptist Behavioral Health Care, and Larry Cantrell, president of the Columbus Rotary Club, Tuesday afternoon following the Rotary meeting at Lion Hills Golf Club.

Tandy Wilson, left, talks with David Johnson, director of Baptist Behavioral Health Care, and Larry Cantrell, president of the Columbus Rotary Club, Tuesday afternoon following the Rotary meeting at Lion Hills Golf Club. Photo by: Carmen K. Sisson/Dispatch Staff


Carmen K. Sisson



More than a month has passed since the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., but questions remain. 


What was wrong with Adam Lanza? What would lead someone to kill 20 children, six adults, his mother and himself? And how can we stop this from happening again? 


The tragedy has opened a nationwide dialogue about a variety of possible factors. That list includes mental illness and lack of treatment, Baptist Behavioral Health Care Director David Johnson said after speaking to the Columbus Rotary Club Tuesday at Lion Hills Golf Club. 


Johnson has spent the past three decades navigating the labyrinth of the human mind, and he has seen both encouraging advances in the behavioral health care industry and disturbing cultural trends.  


Medications have become more effective, with fewer side effects, and clinicians learn more each day about the best ways to help people lead fuller, happier lives. 


He believes the stigmatization of mental illness is diminishing, too. 


But federal funding has decreased, and facilities around the nation have had to make-do with less. In some cases, they've had to close.. 


Because Baptist is privately-owned and not-for-profit, receiving no federal funding, it has been fortunate.  


Its new 26,100-square-foot facility opened in December 2011, costing $10 million and replacing Willowbrook, which Johnson said had developed a negative connotation in the community as a place where only drug addicts and court-ordered clients were sent. 


The bright, spacious new 30-bed facility, with its soothing colors and modern amenities, is staffed by 50 employees and four psychiatrists.  


"They're so passionate about what they do," Johnson said. "Not everyone can work in this field. We're continuing to educate the community that (mental illnesses) are not character defects." 


But there is still much work to be done.  


The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has illustrated the deep need for mental health care in this country, along with care for those suffering from alcohol and substance abuse.  


Johnson believes that need is being overshadowed by the gun control debate that has arisen since the tragedy.  


And he is concerned that with every violent incident, the public becomes more and more desensitized. There is a temptation to push it out of one's head, especially when it occurs far away. 


"The community should not brush it aside while saying, 'Oh, how awful,'" Johnson said. "There should be a focus on it, discussion about it." 


The signs that someone may be in trouble are readily known, he said, but people often don't want to get involved or intrude. Things to watch for may include changes in typical behavior or choice of friends, loss of interest in hobbies that once brought pleasure, changes in school or work performance, an increasing tendency to isolate oneself, and bizarre speech or mannerisms.  


The Golden Triangle has the same problems as other communities, he said.  


At Baptist, they are seeing an increasing number of patients fighting opiate addictions, especially from doctor-prescribed drugs like Lortab and other painkillers and muscle relaxers like Soma.  


He is also concerned that people who need help could become afraid to seek it, reluctant that if they tell anyone the things they think about or do, they will experience "guilt by association" every time a mental illness is highlighted in the media in connection with violence. 


Professionals are trained to understand these things, and people shouldn't be wary, he said. There is little they haven't heard before, and clients often find great comfort in being heard by someone else and realizing they are not the only ones who feel these things and they can be helped. 


"There's something magical about therapy, to hear people talk and really listen," Johnson said. "It leads to a road of healing and achieving the emotional and mental health they deserve."


Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.



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