If violence were a virus, our leaders would be declaring it an epidemic. It's time we saw it as such and ask Gov. Gary Herbert to invite local elected officials and citizens to come together to prevent the spread of violence in our communities.

Like a virus, violence has an incubation period and is treatable if the symptoms can be detected early. Elementary schools are the first line of prevention in detecting early signs of emotional/social problems. In many instances, it's the first time children leave home and enter a group of their peers. It's where a skilled adult could see how a child might differ from other children and share those observations with the parent for their information and possible resources for help as needed.

The challenge for families who have children with emotional problems and whose behavior is unpredictable, uncontrollable and even violent, is how to live with them and where to seek help and relief.

Frequently, the problem is that school officials are not aware or don't know where to send the parents to find resources to help their child. Often, it's not that resources aren't available, but that they are dispersed throughout the communities and not easily identified. Parents now have to agonize over their troubled child without knowing where to go. In addition, help for the child often is too expensive and focuses on long-term treatment that may or may not be necessary.

Gov. Herbert ought to call upon county elected leaders to bring together superintendents of school districts in their respective jurisdictions with their local mental health agencies. They would focus their efforts on finding ways to help school teachers learn the early signs in troubled children, and have caring volunteers, such as those from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Utah, ready to assist parents in getting the help they need for their child and for themselves. Mental illness is a family and community problem.

Individuals, such as NAMI staff, and many community-based organizations who identify with those who struggle with mental illness and know first-hand about mental illness, are resources to help parents and children. All too often, people who need help must wade through the many bureaucracies more concerned with coordination than getting help for the individual. NAMI can play a critical role in making sure individuals don't fall between the cracks.

The Utah Department of Human Services is responsible for overseeing mental health programs that are administered by county officials. It would be timely for the governor to ask the director to coordinate and oversee an initiative to implement early intervention efforts to help parents get the help they need for their children.

The governor has shown his sensitivity about the need to prevent mental illness and to stop the violence that diminishes the quality of life we have come to enjoy.

It's time our community came together to help prevent mental illness and the pain our neighbors suffer. Let's put an end to one critical part of the epidemic of violence infecting our communities.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.