One year ago, our nation was shocked when a mentally ill young man opened fire as Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was meeting with her constituents outside a grocery store in Tucson.
Six people were killed and Rep. Giffords was shot in the head.
The 23-year-old shooter has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is being forcibly medicated in prison in an effort to make him mentally ready for trial.
Just days ago, residents of Northern Utah awoke to news of another tragedy. While attempting to serve a search warrant in Ogden, six policemen were shot, one fatally.
The father of the 37-year-old man arrested in connection with this carnage said his son may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
What has been called a "silent epidemic" of mental illness is sweeping the country as the United States struggles to pull itself out of the Great Recession of 2008. Sadly, Northern Utah is not immune from this epidemic.
Of course, only a small percentage of the mentally ill ever become violent. But the effects of untreated mental illnesses are devastating to individuals and their families just the same. Students are unable to learn and become frustrated and disruptive. Couples are torn apart and may resort to violence. Individuals are no longer able to hold down a job.
So as the Family Counseling Service prepares to celebrate its 46th year of service to Northern Utah, let me share with you some of my thoughts on the mental health of our community.
Poverty and the lack of health care insurance are growing problems in Weber County and especially in Ogden. In 2009 according to the U.S. Census, 12.5 percent of all Weber County residents were living below the poverty level. In Ogden that number was 16.5 percent. (A family of four making less than $23,000 a year qualifies as poor under federal guidelines.)
A lack of health care insurance goes hand in hand with low incomes. More than 31 percent of the households in Weber County with annual incomes of $25,000 or less are uninsured, according to the Census.
At the same time, mental health care needs are growing. A federal study released last October reported that 24.1 percent of all Utahns experienced a mental illness in the last year. Only Rhode Island has a higher rate.
In announcing the results of this study, Pamela S. Hyde of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration said: "Unfortunately in the past year only 37.9 percent of adults with mental health problems received any type of care."
FCS is doing its part to provide care to low- and moderate-income residents who have nowhere else to turn for badly needed therapy. We treat Northern Utah residents struggling with a wide range of issues including depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and anger.
In 2011, FCS helped more than 2,000 area residents through individual, family and couples counseling and life skills classes at the Weber County Jail.
More than 130 children 17 and under were seen at the agency. And, nearly 30 percent of our clients were Hispanic as our area's Spanish-speaking population continues to grow.
FCS uses a sliding fee scale to make therapy affordable for those without insurance. Fees range from $20 to $50 a session, far less than it costs us to provide the service.
In addition, because of a generous grant from the St. Benedict's Foundation, we are able to offer counseling to women and children in crisis at a very low cost.
Those needing help are getting it fast. More than 90 percent of the clients we serve are offered an appointment within three working days after completing their intake questionnaire. Other agencies often have long waiting lists.
Our board of trustees has adopted an ambitious goal for the agency in the coming year. We want to increase the number of clients we serve by 10 percent. To achieve that goal we have already added Saturday morning counseling hours, and we will begin offering educational classes in topics ranging from parenting to anger management.
You can help us, too.
Let's continue the conversation that the tragedies in Tucson and Ogden have started about the need for improved mental health care in our country. The need for budget cuts in these tough economic times must not be an excuse for further reductions in vital services.
Next, let's get rid of the stigma surrounding emotional illness and those who seek counseling. Life occasionally throws all of us a curve that we struggle with. We should applaud those with the inner strength to know they need outside help at these times.
Finally, let's spread the word that affordable counseling -- in both English and Spanish -- is only a phone call away at 801-399-1600. Tell your friends, your neighbors and your family.
When problems seem like mountains, Family Counseling Service can help.
Thornburg is executive director of the Family Counseling Service of Northern Utah. The agency is holding is annual fund-raising dinner called the Share Your Heart Celebration on Feb. 1 at the Timbermine restaurant in Ogden. For reservations, call 801-399-1600.