As Connecticut residents mourn the tragic loss of two young North Stonington boys, the state is once again facing questions about mental health and gun policies.
On Tuesday afternoon, Debra Denison, 47, of Stonington picked up her grandsons, Alton Perry, 2, and 6-month-old Ashton Perry, from Kidds & Co. day care in North Stonington. Sometime that night she shot the two boys to death at a boat launch in Preston near Lake of Isles golf course before killing herself.
"This is absolutely heartbreaking," Senator Chris Murphy said. "Our thoughts are with the family and their loved ones as they deal with this awful tragedy.”
Details of the events leading up to the double murder-suicide are still emerging but two things appear to be clear — Denison had a history of mental illness and she had a gun.
The Amber Alert that Connecticut State Police issued said Denison was “bipolar and has medical conditions.” Brenda Rowley Perry, the mother of Ashton and Alton, wrote on her Facebook page that her mom "was sick."
The Amber Alert also stated that Denison was in possession of a .38-caliber handgun. Connecticut State Police Spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said police are investigating the “weapon history and permit details” for that handgun, which Denison used to shoot her two grandsons and then herself.
“I don’t want to get into the gun issue,” state Sen. Andrew Maynard, a Democrat whose district includes Stonington and North Stonington, said on Wednesday.
Maynard said that while the method was horrible, in this situation if it hadn’t been with a gun it likely would have been by some other manner. What Maynard and his counterpart in the Connecticut House of Representatives, Diana Urban, do want to talk about is mental health.
"It's my understanding she suffered from mental illness and it underscores that we need to do more to provide mental health access to people and families struggling," Maynard said.
“If there is anything we can do, it is to provide mental health access.”
That access, according to Maynard and Urban, should come in part in the form of school-based health centers and mental health first-aid programs.
School-based health centers, such as the one at Pawcatuck Middle School, and mental health first-aid programs, Urban said, are important because they are right there in the school and people feel more comfortable about the community they’re in. Mental health first-aid programs help to educate people about mental illness while teaching them how to respond.
“It’s about community,” Urban said, adding that school-based health centers and mental health first-aid programs help people be aware of others in the community and if they sense something wrong, give them tools to help.
“One of the problems with mental health illnesses is the stigma,” Urban said. “If I tell you I have cancer the whole community rallies around me, but if I tell you I have bipolar disorder everyone runs away. The idea is to take that stigma away and show that just like cancer this is a disease.”
Julie Russell, a Stonington clinical social worker, said that an important element in the healing process is finding ways to make lasting positive impacts that reduce the likeliness of repeated events.
“This event will further the discussion regarding treatment of those experiencing mental illness,” Russell said. “Individuals and communities must work through the pain and outrage of the loss, but part of the journey is to incorporate measures that will have a lasting, positive impact.”
But while the community struggles with the loss and Maynard and Urban look to increase mental health awareness, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed budget cuts $2.7 million per year to school-based health centers, according to the CT Mirror.
“I’m outraged,” Urban said. “They cannot cut these programs. Think about the children.”
Malloy’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the double-murder suicide at the time of publication.
“We can’t save everybody, but we can do a much better job of helping people,” Urban said.