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Will Newtown tragedy force America to take brain injury seriously?

According to a 2008 CDC study, 82.8 percent of male prisoners in Minnesota reported having had one or more brain injury over the course of their lifetime. Marlena M. Wald and her colleagues found the causes ranged from assaults (37%), auto crashes (25%), sports-related (11%) to falls (11%). 

Another study showed that 87 % of  our nation's county jail population had a history of brain injury (Slaughter, Facc & Ehde, 2003). This study also showed that many of these prisoners experience mental health problems such as severe depression and anxiety. 

Other studies have shown co-occurring problems such as alcohol and substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and attempts as well as significant anger management issues for this population.

In 1986, Dr. Dorothy Lewis and Dr. Jonathan Pincus published a study of 15 death row inmates and found every one of them had suffered severe brain injuries in childhood, about half were caused by assaults and six were chronically psychotic. Another study of 14 juveniles sentenced to death found all of them had suffered from a brain injury, most in auto crashes but assaults as well. Twelve had been brutally physically abused and five were sodomized by relatives.

We know where this tipping point begins. Over 765,000 American youth suffer a new brain injury every year, over 80,000 are hospitalized and over 11,000 die annually. Every 40 seconds another American family enters an Emergency Room with a new brain injury. And these are the ones who are actually identified, when two to three times are not identified. These numbers do not include the tens of thousands of non-traumatic acquired brain injuries such as meningitis to strokes, brain tumors and seizure-disorders.

According to the CDC, brain injury is the #1 leading cause of death and disability for American youth with over 500,000 school-aged kids sustaining a brain injury each year. However, according to the federal Department of Education, there are less than 24,000 students nationwide receiving any additional support due to a brain injury.

Our children are falling through the cracks and ending up on the streets, killing themselves, or even worse, killing innocent people and then landing on Death Row.

Here is the good news. There is a national plan to prevent, identify and treat these injuries. The National Pediatric Acquired Brain Injury Plan (PABI Plan) develops a seamless, standardized, evidence-based system of care that is universally accessible for the millions of American families. The PABI Plan also has broad-based, bipartisan support with almost 150 co-sponsors of HR 2600 which will fund a $2.9 billion, seven-year national initiative.

President Obama inspired a nation speaking to the Sandy Hook community last Sunday evening with these very moving words: 

“We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this. If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.”

There is a step we can take today! There is a law we can pass today that can have a significant impact immediately! If we don’t have the political will to implement the PABI Plan today, when will we? How many more children need to fall through the cracks? The children are waiting …

Patrick B. Donohue, is founder of the The Sarah Jane Brain Foundation. For more, visit: www.TheBrainProject.org.