When we talk about mass shootings we must also talk about mental health

By Isabel Nelson

THE number of mass shootings that have happened in the U.S. since the horrific assault at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 is astronomical.

A mass shooting is defined as four or more people being shot.

There have been, at last count, 1,052 mass shootings in 1,066 days.

As such, there are few in this country that haven’t been at least tangentially affected by one shooting or another.

I worked at the University of California at Santa Barbara when the mass shooting occurred there last May.

I remember so vividly the feeling of dread as I waited for my student employees to tell me they were okay.

Only a few days ago, a shooting occurred a short distance from where I live—two people in San Bernadino attacked a center for assisting the disabled, killing 14 people and wounding 17 others.

It’s shocking, but unfortunately no longer surprising, how many mass shootings happen in this country.

​I don’t like to get into arguments about Second Amendment rights.

I may delve into them here in a later article, but gun control is only part of the solution.

When we talk about shootings, we also need to talk about mental health.

The aftermath of mass shootings reveals major gaps in our support for mental health agencies.

The people affected by shootings aren’t just the ones who get a bullet in them.

Mental health care workers and programs can rebuild communities after these awful incidents, but with more support they could be effective in combating the reasons they happen.

​I spoke with Kristen B, a mental health clinician who works for a large non-profit organization in Los Angeles.

She is contracted through an elementary school, working with at-risk kids between the ages of 4 and 12.

The sensitive nature of her work means we cannot use her whole name, but she had a lot to say about how shootings affect her work with children, and her opinion on mental health care.

​“We have gun drills now. We cover the window in the classroom door, lock all doors, and everybody gets down on the floor under their desk.

“We have a code phrase for when it’s safe to come out.”

Students learning
Students in US schools are now learning gun drills

‘Code Red’ drills that mimic an active shooter situation are not mandated by law in all states, but are recommended by the FBI.

Kristen says that shootings and gun violence shows up in stories the kids tell, in pictures they draw, and the games they play.

“I actually hear about that stuff all the time. They aren’t allowed to play ‘shooting’ at recess any more, either—they would chase each other shouting ‘bang bang bang’.

Re-enacting cops and robbers or “goodies and baddies” is an age-old childhood game—I’m pretty sure we used to do that as kids too—so why is it a big deal now?

​“When our clients [the kids] draw pictures of guns or act out shootings, we ask them follow-up questions. I ask questions like “did you see this somewhere?”

And almost always the response is “it’s a video game that my brother has” or they saw it on TV.”

Believe it or not, those are the better answers. Kristen’s clients include children who have suffered from major trauma in the home.

“I have clients where family members have been victims of murders.

“Some of these kids see violence everywhere.”

Kristen deals with children as young as six who are experiencing suicidal thoughts.

​So if these kids see violence on television and at home, why feature it in school, too?

Some people have made a case that gun drills are traumatic for students and teachers alike.

Kristen believes that’s why the school she works at hasn’t had any kind of open conversation about it—too much information could be traumatizing.

But she thinks that, approached in the right way, it could do a lot of good.

If kids talk to each other instead of the adults, it can breed misinformation, and doesn’t teach kids to respond safely if they are experiencing violence.
​“Mental health support is not a high priority for [the school]—they are more focused on performance, attendance, etc.”

The irony is that added support for mental health could improve overall performance at the school.

Kristen believes children can be distracted and confused by a shooting like the most recent one in San Bernadino.

Graphic images of the deceased shooters appeared on local news channels.

Without an opportunity to talk and work through the event, it will impact their studies. Part of my responsibility is to help children identify safe and unsafe situations and people. They need to know what to do instead of acting violently. A lot of my kids have trauma, and a kid can’t focus in class if an emotional trigger causes them to cry, wet themselves, or act out.

​More support to mental health for children could also mean more well balanced adults.

Gun control only affects the part where the gun gets purchased, not any of the decisions that go into committing the act.

Kristen states that repeat offenders in our prisons are sometimes living with undiagnosed mental health problems.

Those who cannot access or follow through with mental health services end up costing taxpayers money through the prison system.

We need to think about supporting mental health, having enough funding for residential centers, and research on culturally adaptable interventions to avoid stigma around seeking help.

“There’s a lot of different ways we could bolster mental health services.

“When people are shooting each other, it’s a lot easier to take action than to take preventative measures. [Mental health] isn’t necessarily the first conversation people have,” Kristen says, but it should be up there.

“You have to put in the money and the effort when they are kids.”
​What does Kristen think about those who would shut the conversation down in order to dissuade copycats?

“I know the effect is something real but by no means do I think that should silence us.

“As adults, working with a vulnerable population, it is our responsibility to do something when these things happen, and be outraged, and at least have conversations.

“We’ve chosen an occupation that’s about helping children thrive in the world.

“When we see them being threatened that should do something to us.

“We should all be asking, ‘What could I be doing better?’ We need to do better.

Whatever we’re doing now, it’s not working.”

One thought on “When we talk about mass shootings we must also talk about mental health

  • December 11, 2015 at 9:57 pm
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    Good article. Though, there’s challenges with the mental health focus too. Mainly being any mention of free care or social care for people with mental illness will quickly be called communist and rejected. The same people who say “Obama is coming for our guns” are the people who don’t want their “taxes paying for no God damn freeloaders”.

    My company experienced a workplace shooting. It wasn’t even a big story in news reports locally for the whole day. It made the lunch time headlines and then was a foot note in the evening reports. Two people were killed. It was not covered nationally.

    Many point to guns being introduced as normal to kids at a young age through toys, video games, tv and movies. But the fact of the matter is, kids all over the world get exposed to the same things. My nephew in Ireland has a Nerf gun. When I was a kid in Ireland, we had water guns.

    My personal opinion and obviously, that’s all it is. What makes America particularly unique is the fact that it’s a pressure cooker. There’s huge social divides in the nation and the media reports are skewed to invoke a reaction and they don’t care what reaction.

    The school you go to is based on your families income. Property tax in most states is what funds the schools. If you are poor, odds are you’re going to a crappy school. Local services are paid for by property tax too…if you live in a poor area, it’s going to remain a crappy area unless a developer decides to invest there, in which case, you’ll be turfed out.

    If you’re a kid growing up in that environment, you’re at a serious disadvantage and all people in more privileged positions and the media will just harp on about those exceptional cases, in which somebody from meager beginnings became a mega billionaire…without stating, how that’s very, very, very rare and unattainable for most. No matter how hard they work. They say it with no sense of humility and can’t understand how people in worse off situations can’t pull themselves out of it…there’s a lack of empathy in this country.

    That’s the number 1. for me. Lack of empathy. American people in small groups and as individuals are as friendly as they come. Get them in larger groups or as a collective and they just seem to become lousy. A busy store, driving on the freeway, ideology as a nation\society. The harsh environment created by that plus the pressure, plus the media could harbor resentment and make people snap.

    Another odd part, compared to other countries is how people here meet confrontation. People escalate very quickly. It seems like violence is very often the first resort.

    Anyways, That’s just my ramblings as an Irish person, who has been living in the US for the last 4 years.

    Reply

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