As someone who takes calls from families experiencing mental health crises, my heart goes out to the families and friends of those who died last week in Parkland, Florida. We know that they are suffering terribly and they, along with the rest of the country are desperate to understand how this could have happened. The conversations inevitably turn to guns and mental illness. Some will try to use mental health as a reason not to talk about guns. We believe that talking about mental illness does not preclude a conversation about guns. We offer these recommendations on mental health because we are an organization of people affected by these conditions.
Mass shootings, particularly those that involve our children, generate an onslaught of media attention and public outcry. When mental illness is part of the dialogue, these shootings can and do contribute to negative attitudes and perpetuate stereotypes against people with mental illness so it is important to be clear about the facts. One in five Americans has a mental illness and with treatment, people with even the most serious conditions are no more likely to be violent. If you consider that 20 percent of teens have a mental illness, that means that hundreds of students at any large high school may have a mental illness. They need to be supported and encouraged, not blamed and shamed.
That said, a small subset of people with mental illness whose symptoms are not treated may pose an increased risk of violence. These risks may increase when substance abuse or past trauma are involved. Violence towards self is particularly a concern, as suicides are the second leading cause of death for our youth.
What can we do to address the mental health needs of students to keep them all safe?
- Increase mental health awareness and availability of counselors in schools. Rather than isolating or punishing youth with mental health challenges, all students should be encouraged to seek help for themselves or a friend. Adults can do their parts by establishing trusting relationships with students, especially those in need. Suspending or expelling students should be avoided at all costs, because doing so only exacerbates the situation and further isolates the person.
- Expand the availability of intensive mental health services for youth exhibiting behaviors or symptoms of more serious mental health conditions. Since schools and school personnel are often best able to identify young people who are most at risk, these services should either be available within the school setting or easily accessible through the school. Coordination between the school and mental health system is paramount to success. Good models for these types of coordinated programs exist in Minnesota and elsewhere. Early episode psychosis programs and other evidence based care should be available nationwide.
- Train law enforcement officers, school resource officers, teachers, and counselors on how to identify students in crisis, how to de-escalate crises, and how to link students with mental health services and supports. Early intervention when symptoms first appear can make a huge difference in helping students recover and get on positive trajectories for their lives.
- Finally, states should consider adopting laws authorizing gun violence prevention restraining orders that establish procedures for removing firearms from individuals who may pose a risk of violence to themselves or others. While the relationship between mental illness and gun violence is very low, we need reasonable options in circumstances where people are at high risk.
As a society, we still too often isolate and avoid young people who are exhibiting signs of the possible emergence of mental illness rather than responding assertively and compassionately to help them recover. Although most situations do not end in violence, it is sad that we only seem to pay attention when violence does occur. In fact, improving mental health services should be a national priority not because of violence, but because it is what is needed to help students who are struggling get their lives on track. It’s time we commit to implementing strategies to engage young people in help before crises occur.
Mary Giliberti is CEO of NAMI.