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I just watched President Obama's emotional remarks yesterday in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. I was glad I had a box of tissues nearby. I suspect millions of us have had the same reaction.

A story line that surfaced yesterday and will linger for weeks is the inevitable question of motive. What could have prompted such evil acts? The question, though, seeks a rational answer for irrational deeds. No answer will ever be found. The same question is asked about people who commit suicide. The question goes unanswered then, too.

While we'll never be able to point to a single instance that leads to horrific decisions like the one the gunman made yesterday, we can realistically put these instances into a broader context — mental health. People with mental health problems are among our nation's most seriously under-served population, in some part because their disabilities aren't visible. Take a look around the place you live and count the agencies serving people with mental illnesses. You'll be able to count them on one hand and have fingers left over. Ask people who work there about the burgeoning need for mental health services. Ask them about financial trends; I don't think you'll find any of the agencies have more money at their disposal than they had five years ago. You'll find staffing levels have dropped. In short, you'll find fewer resources. How can mental health professionals hope to help ticking human time bombs if they don't have the resources to find them and provide them the care they need?

The same is true of schools. How many students does each guidance counselor serve now, as opposed to five or ten years ago? There's a hugely important related point here: Ask counselors how much of their time is spent dealing with students who are angry to a degree that is beyond comprehension for those of us who don't see it. The home lives for many children are the exact opposite of the word "nurturing." Taking care of these children has fallen on the school districts for the same reason that schools now serve breakfast to students — because they're not getting it at home. Think of what this lack of care does to children's self-esteem. As my wife, a retired elementary school principal, used to repeatedly say, "For many of our students, school is the best part of their day."

Could mass shootings by people who are barely adults, age-wise, be averted by providing much more comprehensive mental health services in schools, by working with students steeped in anger to subdue their rage and their growing sense that their lives—and perhaps, by extension, the lives of others—are valueless? I don't think we'll ever know. For one, continuing government funding cuts to education show just how valuable education is to our society. How many times have you heard someone say teachers have it soft, teachers are overpaid? Those people deserve to be drowned in a tidal wave of dissenting opinions. We should individually and collectively shame our elected officials for not fighting like alley cats to reverse this trend. We should shout at them to provide money to give our kids the care and nurturing that my generation received in school. Maybe now these things will happen. Maybe now there is cause for hope.

This is the only area where headway can be made. Politicians fear the National Rifle Association, which will once again trot out its well-worn arguments, some of which I agree with: for instance, the truth that only law-abiding citizens will comply with new government restrictions on firearms. There are, though, gun-control ideas worth discussing: for example, should people be held more accountable for crimes committed with their legally obtained weapons? Should people be held more accountable if their legally obtained but unsecured firearms are used during the commission of crimes?

However, the NRA's unwillingness to even consider whether people really need military-grade automatic weapons for self-protection or hunting signals that this organization isn't going to come up with constructive ideas for mitigating the firearms avalanche. Our politicians don't have the guts to stand up to the "I'm the NRA and I vote" bumper sticker crowd; they don't have the guts to suggest that maybe the people who wrote the Second Amendment didn't anticipate a day when guns could be readily obtained by people who really ought not have them, a day when firearms could spew hell's storm of bullets and didn't need to be reloaded after each round was fired.

And so, unless we as a nation are willing to recognize the need for a massive investment in services for people with mental health problems, including services for troubled students in our schools, slaughters like the one in Sandy Hook will emerge from the headlines with chilling frequency.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 15th, 2012 04:33 pm (UTC)
Amen. You voice the thoughts I have been having since I first heard of this yesterday. Gun laws will mean nothing unless we can - as a society - decide that physical and mental health issues have value. I work in the trenches with poverty and mental illness every day. I fear for our nation that turns a blind eye - we have returning soldiers by the score now with mental health issues. Each school quarter now I see the number of veterans on our case file double.

We are running out of places to hide from this issue.
Dec. 15th, 2012 08:29 pm (UTC)
Keep fighting the good fight. Your elected officials should be collectively ashamed that they don't give you and your colleagues more resources to do your valuable jobs.
Dec. 15th, 2012 06:07 pm (UTC)
Thank you for a beautifully written and well-thought-out piece. When I got home yesterday and began to hear the news, I kept listening for even a tiny discussion of resources for mental health care. Your comments above represent the longest comment I've heard from anyone in any forum so far.

On the gun issue, I am an extreme pessimist, which is not my normal territory. I have friends on both sides of the issue, and I see two things that are needed for a real conversation that we don't have on this issue. One is a willingness to really listen to each other -- not just to lob slogans, but to really hear the other person's concerns and beliefs. The other is trust. Neither side trusts the other to honestly consider all parts of the issue. And neither side trusts anyone in a leadership position on the other side. Without those two, we'll get sloganeering and not much more. (Sounds a bit like contemporary American politics in general, doesn't it?)
Dec. 15th, 2012 08:31 pm (UTC)
And so distrust rules and people die.
Dec. 15th, 2012 08:14 pm (UTC)
Last week, I sat in on the strategic planning session for our county's mental health association, where I am a board member serving a 4-year term.

This agency does so much good with the resources made available to it, but its efforts are limited by, of course, lack of money. The most effective programs we have are those run in school systems for at-risk young children, and for veterans.

It's popular to rant about the unfair comforts of the rich and the need for the government to do more, to fix more. I've gotta say that without the rich, this agency would be screwed. It's through the charitable giving by the wealthy of our community and the foundations they've established that will carry the vision of this agency into the future, not government funding.

I'm really anxious to learn more about what this young man's mental health issues were, and what, if anything, was done to help him. It appears he comes from a very financially comfortable environment, so presumably he had access to decent health care. And yet, he committed two of the most heinous, unthinkable crimes known to a civilized society: matricide and the senseless, pointless killing of innocent children.
Dec. 15th, 2012 08:27 pm (UTC)
The fact that contributions from patrons, not government funding, are what keeps your agency carrying on is a shame and a sin.
Dec. 15th, 2012 08:29 pm (UTC)
Indeed, but a sad reality, so the agency must adapt in order to survive. But. There's money out there, and people willing to give it, so the key is finding it and getting it.
Dec. 16th, 2012 02:30 pm (UTC)
This past summer you moderated a debate at Olean Public Library between John Stengle of the Tea Party and Dr. Barry Gan, am SBU professor. In that debate Mr. Stengle stated that we don’t need people in the helping professions. We don’t need teachers, social workers, police, or any other people that serve those in our society that cannot take care of themselves. Unfortunately, that view point is more prevalent than most of us would like to admit. Our last presidential election had one candidate reinforcing just such a stance in his reference to the 47%. Every day in our communities the reality of reducing resources to treat those with mental health issues is playing itself out before our very eyes. We wring our hands and wonder WHO, WHAT, and HOW when we know very well WHY! Mental health treatment is a life long regimen that is costly in terms of medications and counseling therapies that must be ongoing and consistent. It is also costly because that population of people often needs public assistance to live a meager bare bones existence in an economic environment that funds don’t keep pace with. While more funding will help greatly, it is just as important to create a greater sense of empathy. The stigma of mental health is represented by a broad range of people. If you think that mental health is represented by the guy walking down the street flailing at an invisible person and ranting out loud, think again, it’s you doctor, your lawyer, maybe the teacher in the classroom. The point is that mental health issues are an every man issue and until we as a society accept this we will repeat our history.
Dec. 16th, 2012 08:39 pm (UTC)
Stengel lost the crowd when he made that statement, and it was a pro-Stengel crowd. His statement was the dumbest thing I heard during the entire political season.
Dec. 17th, 2012 03:36 pm (UTC)
I had hoped you would comment on this issue, and you didn't disappoint. Thank you for your well-crafted thoughts. I agree, completely, with all of them.
Dec. 17th, 2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Lizz. Unless people like you, me and other like-minded folk don't start speaking up in a public manner (something much more public than a blog post), then nothing will happen, and someday, probably sooner than later, we'll be engulfed in nationwide grief again.
Dec. 17th, 2012 10:07 pm (UTC)
I think you would enjoy this article, pjv. It has a very powerful message, written by someone who would know.

Dec. 18th, 2012 04:22 am (UTC)
Thanks much for forwarding this link, Kristy. I am going to post it separately so it doesn't get overlooked down here in the comments section.

The way our nation deals with mentally ill people is criminal. And all of us have the potential to be victims.

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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