Mental Health Month: It’s Not About Shooters

Susan Weinstein, J.D.
Editor in Chief, Care for Your Mind

As Mental Health Awareness Month continues, we are again in the position of gun violence determining the conversation about mental illness. Friday’s deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School – where 10 people (2 teachers and 8 students aged 15-17) were killed and 13 were injured – shifted the conversation from raising awareness, cultivating understanding, and dispelling stigma to equating mental illness with violence. Reaction to this shooting shows how much work we still have to do.

Why the blame on mental health? According to reports, the student – who was apprehended – had expressed suicidal intent in his journals.

People like you who read blogs like Care for Your Mind generally have a different spin on mental health. As a whole, we are working to

  • align mental health with physical health, rather than positioning the mind as separate from the body
  • improve the quality of care and treatment outcomes
  • equip adults to identify signs of mental health conditions and to know how to get help
  • increase the availability of mental health services
  • eliminate the social and cultural biases that discourage people from getting help
  • create supportive services that allow people affected by mental health conditions to live well
  • protect the rights of people living with mental health conditions
  • support research looking for causes and more effective treatments.

We have made progress in some of these areas over the past decade and there is still more to be done. But all of our incremental progress can be set back by public reactions to tragedies like this one in Santa Fe. Mental illness may play a part in these events, but the consequences are made so much worse by the ready availability of powerful weaponry. The suggestion that we will solve this problem by not selling guns to people with a history of mental illness is simplistic and ineffective (except when the person is contemplating suicide, in which case we really don’t want them to have access to firearms or other lethal means). In Santa Fe, the shooter used his father’s guns.

As of May 18, there have been 16 shootings on school property in 2018, not including college campuses. Thirty-three people have died, 57 have been injured. And that’s only the school-based shootings.

Overall, 237 kids (age 0-11) and 992 teens (age 12-17) have been killed or injured by guns in 2018. The 5,482 deaths and 9.996 injuries nationwide so far in 2018 do not even include up-to-date data on the suicide deaths that number around 22,000 annually. (See Gun Violence Archive)

Seriously, is this the best we can do?

There is undoubtedly more that we can do on the mental health side with regard to preventing school shootings. This might include, for example,

  • being more proactive in identifying kids who are struggling, including training teachers, parents, youth workers, clergy, etc.
  • teaching kids coping strategies and emotional management skills from a young age
  • educating pre-adolescents and teens about handling adverse experiences, such as (real or perceived) rejection by an individual or group
  • implementing suicide prevention and mental health programs for students
  • making mental health services available at school, in community settings, in collaboration with houses of worship, and in clinical settings, as well as through use of technology
  • increasing the mental health workforce for kids and adolescents
  • increasing protective factors and reducing risk factors associated with suicide
  • eliminating the social stigma associated with mental health issues
  • helping boys in particular to develop willingness to seek help and reduce judgment about themselves and other boys
  • providing more supports for parents to become active supporters of their kids getting help
  • addressing language and cultural barriers to care.

But in order to make a significant difference in the result, we need to better regulate access to firearms. Studies (e.g., this) show that states with stronger gun regulation tend to have fewer gun-related deaths. Common-sense regulations that will save lives are supported by gun owners and non-gun owners and Republicans and Democrats. We need our governments to act both to regulate guns and expand mental health services.

According to Mental Health America, during Mental Health Month we spread the word that mental health is something that everyone should care about. That doesn’t mean just caring about being shot.

What do you think?
What actions should advocates take to change the narrative around mental health, so that it doesn’t become an issue primarily when a shooting occurs? What have you been doing for mental health awareness?

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