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Ralston urges focus on mental health
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Georgia House Speaker David Ralston responds to a question during a recent interview. - photo by Times file photo

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, believes it’s time to have a serious discussion on mental illness after the Connecticut elementary school shooting that killed 26 students and staff.

Ralston speaks his mind on controversial issues seemingly without regard for his political position. He doesn’t have to worry, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor from the University of Georgia. Although the speaker said he takes nothing for granted, Bullock said he’ll easily be re-elected to his position.

“Nobody’s going to mount a coup around him,” Bullock said.

Ralston said his biggest goals for the 2013 session are to avoid tax increases and continue to push Georgia into being more competitive for economic development. He opposes caps on lobbyist spending as “not real ethics reform” and said the House will introduce an ethics reform package in the first week.

But better dealing with mental illnesses is also at the top of his list. He said gun control advocates blame guns for the tragedy, when the issue is really mental illness. Many of Georgia’s legislators have argued the same point in recent weeks.

Rep. Charles Gregory, R-Kennesaw, has already submitted four prefiled bills on gun restrictions. The legislation would get rid of many current restrictions on gun possession and allow Georgians to carry firearms in recreational areas, colleges and universities, and churches and other places of worship. One bill, HB 27, would remove the governor’s authority to suspend the sale, dispensing or transportation of firearms in an emergency.

Ellyn Jeager, director of public policy and advocacy for Mental Health America of Georgia, and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said they want to be part of the discussion. Jaeger has a different perspective than Ralston, saying there needs to be two discussions, one on mental health and one on gun rights.

It’s unknown whether the Connecticut school gunman had a mental disorder, and some murderers don’t show signs of a mental disorder beforehand. He didn’t have a diagnosis of mental illness, Jaeger said, and when people think of mental illness, they commonly think of schizophrenia, a brain disorder Jeager said affects about 1 percent of the population.

“You (could) know people right now that have a mental illness and you’ll never know it,” Jeager said, referring to the general population. “We really need a discussion on the stigma of mental illness.”

Abrams said she appreciates the speaker being open. She also said it should be a dual conversation. Abrams said she supports the Second Amendment and has shot weapons, but needs more experience.

“I refuse to carry a concealed weapon until I’m properly trained,” she said.

Ralston said legislators need to figure out how to treat mental illness, identifying people who are ill and identifying resources to help them. Some of those resources include access to health providers — especially in rural areas — crisis services, peer support services and basic education on mental illness, Jeager said.

“We need better mental health in schools, helping parents work through some of these issues,” she said.

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