Alaska's Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, native of Newtown: Better mental health system needed

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About four and a half decades before Mead Treadwell was elected lieutenant governor of Alaska, he was a second-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a place he recalls as the cornerstone of his happy childhood in Newtown, Conn.

He remembers trips out to a nearby swamp to collect pollywogs in jars and watching them grow into frogs. He remembers waiting in line at the cafeteria, where lunch cost 30 cents and ice cream a nickel. He remembers making a two-dimensional Santa Claus out of red construction paper and cotton balls for Christmas. He had a paper route, played baseball and kickball and was a Boy Scout.

Newtown, he remembers, was "a great place to grow up as a child," and Sandy Hook, where he attended school from second to fifth grade, was central to that experience.

On Friday, as he heard the reports of the massacre at his beloved grade school, he rewalked those hallways in his mind. He remembered the principal's office, "where I was probably summoned once or twice," and to the right was the cafeteria, where pint-size student actors occasionally staged plays.

"I immediately kind of found myself in the school wondering what kind of agonizing day that was," he said in a phone interview.

The Newtown he remembers was instantly transformed.

On Friday, the old-fashioned firehouse where he practiced in the fife and drum corp became a refuge for terrified children fleeing the school and a staging area where some parents learned the tragic fates of their young children.

Timothy B. Treadwell Memorial Park -- named for his late father, a former first selectman (similar to a chief administrator) -- became a base for the media, where reporters standing elbow to elbow heard police officials recount the horror that unfolded within the school's walls.

"Dozens of people who were in my class in my school are in touch with each other and are in shock," he said. "[They are] praying for each other and shaking their heads collectively wondering what is wrong with the world."

Newtown was a place where everyone knew everyone, a phenomenon that was multiplied in the confines of the small school.

"In a little elementary school like that, the families all knew each other," he said. "I'm sure what people are going through right now is just devastating."

But he reflected on the horror not only as a former student, but also as an elected official.

Mr. Treadwell, a Republican, was elected in 2010 with Gov. Sean Parnell and is considering a run for the U.S. Senate in 2014. A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Business School, he worked for years in Alaska in the private sector.

Alaska, he said, has grappled with a suicide problem for years. In 2007, the state found it had 21.5 suicides per 100,000 people, a little less than double the national average. Among Native Alaskans, the rate was three times the national average.

Mr. Treadwell said the nation does not necessarily need more gun control, but it does need a more robust mental health system.

"In my mind, the freedom we enjoy under the Constitution brings with it a lot of responsibility," he said. "I think the responsibility is to address the root causes of depression and people who find horrible ways like this to respond."

In Alaska, the state has set aside revenue-generating lands to create a trust fund for mental health services across the state. The fund, Mr. Treadwell said, works like "venture capital," allowing the state to try new methods of treating the scourge of mental health problems and pursue research initiatives. This funding is in addition to what the state already sets aside for mental health services.

"One thing that we're spending a lot time on in Alaska and what we need to spend more time on in this country is helping identify people with depression and helping them get help," he said. "How do we as a nation care for and spot people who are in an incredibly depressed state?"

"Out of this tragedy I hope comes more attention nationally to mental health."

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. The Associated Press contributed.


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