By Mary Giliberti, J.D.
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?
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.
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