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I'll call her Mary. She was raped by her father as a child, her grandmother says, spent a long time in a mental health hospital, took medications to control her bipolar disorder and PTSD and lived in the structured environment her mother maintained for her.

Then Mary turned 18, and her world began to unravel. She refused to take her meds, complaining that they made her "feel like a zombie." Although she loves children and working with them, she recently lost her job doing just that.

"She has fallen into a dark abyss," says her grandmother, a Utahn who emailed me about Mary and later took my phone call. "There's so much anger in her."

Such are the circumstances in which so many American families find themselves. Mental illness devastates sufferers and their friends and families. While President Barack Obama says he will push for a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, many people are calling for more care for the mentally ill.

We absolutely must do both.

Mary's grandmother — I'll call her Anne — wrote her email in the aftermath of the Connecticut massacre, which killed 20 children and seven women. She felt that while the conversation had turned to gun control, the "real conversation should be about mental illness."

Here's where we have to be careful. The shooter, Adam Lanza, reportedly had Asperger's syndrome, but experts say there is no evidence linking the autism-like disorder to violent behavior. Nor can mental illness alone explain violence. A Northwestern University psychiatry professor told PBS that while "a small subset of people with mental illness become violent, the vast majority … do not."

Still, Anne is adamant that mental illness should be a major topic of discussion.

"There is not a person among us who either has a mental illness, or has a loved one or friend who suffers from this disease," she wrote. "And if you know someone who denies they need treatment, you have witnessed firsthand the pain and suffering families go through."

Mary's family fears for her. In October, she pawned everything she owned and caught a bus to New Mexico with a man Anne says is a convicted sex offender.

When Mary came back, Anne told her, "You can come to my house, but not with the boyfriend."

After a long pause, Anne, weeping softly, says, "I'm afraid to have her in my house. I may have left her, and now I've lost her."

In her email, Anne wrote that families "keep seeking help and the only answer from health professionals, law enforcement and society in general is: 'She is an adult; there is nothing we can do until she breaks the law or wants help.' "

There's truth there. In October, after a young, mentally ill Utahn was bailed out of jail, he allegedly stabbed his 84-year-old grandmother to death.

"There is a system in place, and a lot of individuals get very good care, but there are individuals who are not getting the care that they need," Rebecca Glathar, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time.

Police, government, psychiatric hospitals and social services have developed fast-action teams to respond to mentally ill people, but chasms remain.

For people such as Mary, who refuses treatment for bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress, "you see the warning signs, but it doesn't make a difference," Anne wrote. "Your hands are tied. The day you know will come, finally comes."

That may mean an arrest — drugs often are involved — and the person can get help through mental health court, Anne says.

Or the afflicted may decide that, in his "darkest moment, life is just too much and suicide is the answer."

Or a grandmother is murdered, Anne wrote, or a child kills not only himself but also others, or a mother kills her children.

For Anne, with the way the law works, "we have tied the hands of anyone who could help by taking the approach that nothing can be done until it's too late."

Choosing to forgo treatment for a life-threatening illness is one thing, she says, but "should people really have the right to choose not to be mentally healthy, especially if they become a threat to themselves or others?"

This year, Anne says, she'll talk to Utah legislators. She'll continue her work with formerly homeless elderly people. And she'll keep up her crusade to enlighten people about the ravages of mental illness.

"I heard someone call the [school shootings] the saddest thing ever," Anne says. "It isn't going to be the saddest thing ever [unless] we do something to stop it."

If we don't, something even sadder than Newtown could happen.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at, and Twitter, @pegmcentee.

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