By Nadia Allen
Mental Health Association in Orange County joins Americans in mourning the loss of those killed in the tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn. Our thoughts and sincere prayers are with the families of the victims and everyone who is affected by this horrific event. Additionally, we express our hope for the full recovery of those who were injured.
At this point, we do not know the motivation behind this senseless act. We do know that events like this will impact families, the Newtown community and the nation. Many may feel at risk and may experience feelings of anxiety and fear. Parents may be groping with how to discuss these and similar events with their children.
Mental Health America has developed guidelines to help Americans respond and cope with tragic events, which can be found at www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/information/get-info/coping-with-disaster. To guide discussions about the shooting, MHA offers the following suggestions for parents as they communicate with young people in the area and across the nation:
• Children sense the anxiety and tension in adults around them. Furthermore, like adults, children experience the same feelings of helplessness and lack of control that tragedy-related stress can bring about. Conversely, unlike adults, children have little experience to help them place their current situation into perspective.
• Each child responds differently to tragedy, depending on his or her understanding and maturity, but it’s easy to see how an event of this magnitude can create a great deal of anxiety in children of all ages. Most likely, they will interpret the tragedy as a personal danger to themselves and those they care about.
• Whatever the child’s age or relationship to the damage caused by tragedy, it’s important that you be open about the consequences for your family, and that you encourage him or her to talk about it.
• Talk honestly about the incident, without graphic detail, and share some of your own feelings about it.
• Encourage young people to talk about their concerns and to express their feelings, and validate the young person’s feelings and concerns.
• Limit television viewing. It can be difficult to process the images and messages in news reports.
• Recognize what may be behind a young person’s behavior. They may minimize their concerns outwardly, but may become argumentative, withdrawn or allow their school performance to decline.
• Keep the dialogue going even after media coverage subsides. Continue to talk about feelings and discuss actions being taken to make schools and communities safer.
• Seek help when necessary. If you are worried about a young person’s reaction or have ongoing concerns about his/her behavior or emotions, contact a mental health professional at their school or at your community mental health center.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives and everyone who is affected by these shocking events. And we join in applauding the brave actions of individuals who prevented greater harm.
It will likely take many days to understand the reasons and motivations behind this national tragedy. Many have pointed to mental health as an issue. It must first be emphasized that people with mental health conditions are no more likely to be violent than the rest of the population. Furthermore, we have science-based methods to successfully treat persons with even the most severe mental illnesses. A very small group of individuals with a specific type of mental health symptoms are at greater risk for violence if their symptoms are untreated.
It is also important that, as a community, we assist persons with signs and symptoms of mental illnesses to seek treatment. Although rare, when a person becomes so ill that he/she is a danger to themselves or others state laws provide a way to provide them help even if they don’t believe that they need it. The best strategy, however, is to have an accessible system of care that is easy to use, well funded and provides effective services.
Science has not developed tools to predict reliably individuals at risk for violence. But we can reduce the small risk of violence in those with certain mental health conditions by investing in proven intensive, coordinated community-based mental health services and making certain that they can access these services.
We do not know if the mental health system failed in this situation or if there were missed opportunities or if effective treatment might have averted this tragedy. It’s our sincere hope that we can find answers and create solutions that prevent this tragedy from ever happening again.
If you are worried about a young person’s reaction or have ongoing concerns about his/her behavior or emotions, contact a mental health professional at their school or at your community mental health center. We encourage you to call MHA’s 24/7 Helpline @ 1-800-832-1200 and/or text MHA’s TEXT 4 TEENS @ 845-391-1000 for information, referrals, or to simply talk or text with a trained listener.
Nadia Allen is executive director of Mental Health Association in Orange County. MHA is a private, not-for-profit agency seeking to promote the positive mental health and emotional well-being of Orange County residents, working towards reducing the stigma of mental illness, developmental disabilities, and providing support to victims of sexual assault and other crimes.