Brian Nicholson, OKespa–ol
Members of a support group for people suffering with metal health, gather to share their stories at the Valley Mental Health Clinic in Salt Lake City.

The tragic shootings in Sandy Hook have reignited the gun control debate, and that's not surprising. There have been far too many mass shootings in recent years. Indeed, one is far too many. That's why people on both sides of the ideological divide insist that we have to "do something."

The problem is that each side believes the other side's proposed solutions will only make the problem worse. Should lawmakers ban guns altogether? Should they arm teachers? There's quite a lot of middle ground between those two extremes, but don't expect to see partisans on either side meeting there anytime soon. The polarization surrounding this issue is too great to yield much in the way of productive discussion.

This time around, however, there seems to be a new element entering the conversation. People across the political spectrum agree that efforts to identify and treat mental illness in this country have been woefully inadequate. It has become obvious that taking concrete steps to intervene could go a long way toward preventing unthinkable acts of violence.

Far too many people view mental illness as some sort of character defect or something that ought not be discussed in polite company. Consequently, the lingering stigma attached to acknowledging or treating such illnesses prevents sufferers from seeking adequate treatment. In most cases, this means they suffer in silence. But the Sandy Hook attacks, if indeed they were the products of mental illness, demonstrated that ignoring extreme cases can result in extreme tragedies that are anything but silent.

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Just as those with physical ailments can be a danger to themselves and others, so it is with the mentally ill. The difference is that, over the years, the nation has dismantled much of the infrastructure that has traditionally been used to treat those with such severe mental illnesses that they are unable to function in society. The end result is that people who ought to be in institutions often end up either homeless on the streets or in jail. Both of those alternatives make the problem worse and ultimately put the public at risk. It's time to radically rethink that approach.

That's not to say that a renewed focus on mental illness will ensure there will never be another Sandy Hook. It's tempting to look for easy answers where there are none. What's encouraging, however, is that the desire to address deficiencies in coping with mental illness doesn't seem to be exclusive to Republicans or Democrats. In attempting to "do something," if there's one issue on which there's near-universal agreement, wouldn't that be the perfect place to start?