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A mental health professionals comments on school shootings

A mental health professionals comments on school shootings

I have gotten requests for comment about the recent school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Of course, this is probably because I have worked in mental health my whole career. Unfortunately, this is one of numerous times I’ve been asked to comment about mass shootings in that career. Here are my thoughts.

  1. Spirituality. I am a Christian. I was raised Christian and went to church every Sunday. I said the Pledge of Allegiance in school. We say Grace before every meal. Our country was founded on it. Studies have shown that prayer helps us physically heal. It helps calm us. It steadies our heart rate. It performs all kinds of miraculous deeds for us. Listen, there are all kinds of beliefs out there. I feel people should be free to pursue what form of spirituality that they want. The scientific results of various kinds of meditation are irrefutable. But we have strayed as a society away from one of the most basic truths and that is “we are not alone” and our kids are missing this message because we do not follow it at home. When they perceive the world as crumbling around them they do not know where or to whom to turn. Studies have also shown that people with a strong spiritual background are more productive at work, have stronger bonds at home, and are generally happier. I know the arguments against this and my answer is this: no one is perfect. We are all flawed. I am not talking about perfection.
  2. We as a society have almost completely disengaged from our kids. By the time they are hitting their teens they have an iPhone, a Facebook account (or something similar), Snapchat, Twitter, texting, e-mail, etc. Anything going wrong in these formats is not caught before the child is distressed and the social media exposure does not allow these kids to recharge like we used to by playing outside with friends, hunting, fishing, ballgames, etc. Because of this disengagement all kinds of things are missed. I will tell you, if you are paying attention it is not difficult to see if there is something going awry in our children. Many of us do not even have dinner together anymore. Children are many things and have many positive attributes, but hiding their emotions is not one of them.
  3. Parents need to get their kids to unplug themselves from social media for a certain amount of time during the day. What amount of time is that? Gauge the child’s immersion and cut it in half. If you put violent internet games on top of the social media saturation it is a recipe for disaster. There are some in the social media/electronic industry that are calling for intervention from some of the industry giants. There has, now, been some recognition that immersion in this phenomenon should not be taken lightly. Think about this: we would no more give the keys of a 900 horse power NASCAR to a 13 to 16-year-old, yet we allow them to run rampant around the world on the internet. Let that sink in. There are all sorts of things kids could see and read about. Some good; much more not so good—all the way to disgusting, absolutely weird, and disturbing.
  4. Mental health treatment is still stigmatized. Get over it! Mental health issues are increasing everywhere. People need help and it is available almost everywhere to one degree or another. What is the cause of the increase? Probably some of what we have already talked about. The reality is people need professional help and they need the support of family and friends to move past and/or manage whatever is ailing them.
  5. Medications. The reality is we don't always know what the long-term effects are of the medications that we use. The guy in Vegas was on anti-anxiety meds and losing a bunch of money (anxiety producing, I would guess). Did the two clash in his brain? Well, how many 80-year-old mentally ill people do you know? I am not talking about the various types of dementia. Mental illnesses are progressive and they will kill you if not caught early and managed appropriately. Also, the meds used for some of the more severe cases are harsh on the body. Now, meds are not always called for, but they can be helpful in managing symptoms while therapy takes place. Just saying—if your car is broken you seek help. If you break your leg you seek help. I could go on and on.
  6. In Sandy Hook and other shootings there was little to no reporting of the shooters in question and some would say there was just a bunch of denial. In Florida there was a lot of reporting done about the shooter, but no follow-up. Shame on us! Reporting does nothing unless there is follow-up. Furthermore, there has to be more reporting. The idea that someone is going to be wrongly accused of something might just happen from time to time. Better to over report than under report. We have seen what happens with under or no reporting.
  7. Mental health funding has to increase—bottom line. Every other health related industry survives on various funding sources and/or gets paid a decent rate (another topic) by insurance companies. There are those who will say it is too expensive to treat these people. Well, what is the cost of the lives lost? The families forever altered, most for the worst? Also, healthier people access healthcare less. This is a fact. So the logic may be that getting mentally ill people the help they need would reduce costs in other areas...right? Not to mention, we would be active in helping another human being become happier and healthier.
  8. Finally—and this is where I will likely lose some of you—as a conservative I am not in favor of gun control per se. But, I am in favor of a couple things. a) Weapons developed by the military to efficiently kill people should not be readily available to just anyone. Extreme gun advocates would have you believe these weapons are no different that hunting rifles. Well, I disagree. I grew up hunting in Michigan. I know the difference. Militarily designed weapons are lighter. The sighting is more precise for quick engagement. The barrels and muzzles are designed for more efficiency. Trigger pull and grips are designed to be more effective and I am not even getting into the ballistics. Severely mentally ill people should not have access to these weapons. We do not let kids play with matches. Blind people don’t drive. And there are multitudes of ways that we limit people’s behavior because we know they cannot handle it for whatever reason. The laws already exist and if they don't someone smarter than I should develop them. b) You would just have to bite the bullet if you are diagnosed with severe mental illness. I believe that someone with diagnosed mental illness should not own a weapon. The reality is that few violent crimes are committed by the mentally ill—I know this sounds like a huge contradiction, but the crimes we see in the news are of a different caliber and almost always have a mental illness component, which we don’t totally understand, just listen to all the divergent theories.

So, those are my thoughts. I have been in the mental health sector for a long time and have seen the progression, some of it up close, and it is time for some candid talk. I am not suggesting punishment for these severe illnesses and I am not talking about all mental illness, but there has to be a practical way to both humanly treat and to save others from a potentially devastating tragedy. Are there other ways to tackle this? Probably. Let others share their ideas and maybe together we will come up with something that saves lives.

Jeff Rice is the director of Campbell County Health Behavioral Health Services at Campbell County Memorial Hospital. Behavioral Health Services provides the Northeastern Wyoming community with compassionate, confidential and comprehensive treatment of behavioral disorders, mental illness and substance abuse treatment following detox. Appointments are available Monday–Friday from 8 am–5 pm. Call 307.688.5000 or visit www.cchwyo.org/BHS.