Letter: Mental-health program saves lives, money

The heartbreak of 20 first-graders murdered in Newtown, Conn., has given our nation collective pause, sparking a national conversation about gun control and the deficit of quality care for persons with mental illness. Universities, while endeavoring to prevent the repeat of such tragedies, often find themselves prohibited by state laws from keeping guns off campus. With the understanding that there are no simple solutions, I join the presidents of Loyola, Xavier and Dillard universities, as well as the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana and the Rabbinical Council, in calling for our country to explore what can be done to mitigate gun violence.

Additionally, states, including our own, faced with serious budget shortfalls have been forced to make large cuts in mental-health services. Although we all are struggling to decide exactly what we should do in response to Newtown, it seems clearer what we should not do — eliminate Louisiana’s Early Childhood Supports and Services, a prevention program that has demonstrated positive results in reducing serious behavior problems and parental stress in families who have young children with emerging psychiatric problems.

This program has been featured in The New York Times and on ABC’s 20/20 for the cutting-edge, evidence-based mental-health services and other support it provides to young children and their families. Without this program, these children will most likely be treated with unproven, expensive and potentially dangerous psychotropic medications. Eliminating the program will create modest savings, but it will likely dramatically escalate costs for alternative care.

Even more worrisome, the long-term costs will be far greater: increased use of special education, more high school dropouts, higher inappropriate health-care utilization, more incarcerations and more tragedies. The choice is clear — pay now with funds that could be made available, or transfer the burden to future generations.

Budgets are tight, but programs like ECSS are crucial to reducing long-term costs. Research confirms that creating positive experiences for young children closes achievement gaps, lowers crime rates, decreases the need for social services, increases employment and earnings and enhances returns on our investments. Supportive and nurturing experiences help consolidate healthy brain development.

Conversely, when young children are exposed to family violence, neglect or overly stressed parents, their brain development is compromised and their mental health is jeopardized. Although governments cannot prevent stress exposure, they can support programs proven to reduce the harmful effects of adversity.

As we reflect on the Newtown tragedy, let us not squander an opportunity to protect our future through smart and effective investments. No issue will have a greater impact on the future workforce capacity in our state or provide a better return on our investment than supporting the development of our youngest citizens.

Scott S. Cowen, president

Tulane University

New Orleans