While the country mourns the loss of 20 innocent children and six of their teachers and the school principal, the debate seeking solutions focuses on two areas, gun control and mental health. The rationale to own guns ranges from need to protect, desire to hunt, and arguments of individual rights. The NRA recommends armed police in every school, a violent approach to a problem of violence that fails to address the underlying cause of violence in our society.
Many people fear those with mental illness, considering them to be more inclined to be violent. Those of us who work in the field of psychiatry know that those with mental illness, when properly treated, pose no greater risk to society. However, people with mental illness who also have drug and alcohol problems, and those who are untreated and suffer from serious and persistent mental illness, such as schizophrenia, psychosis, paranoia and some personality disorders, are at greater risk to commit acts of violence as well as to be victims of acts of violence. Early intervention and treatment have been shown to be effective.
It is important to differentiate those with mental illness from those who lack the ability to regulate their emotions. We see that evidenced in road rage and high speed police chases. Identifying those who may potentially be violent is difficult at best and even more so with children whose normal development sometimes includes a period of antisocial behavior.
So while early identification and effective and continuing treatment are part of the solution, mental health has endured severe and continuous reductions in funding and fewer people pursuing careers in psychiatry, resulting in harmful cutbacks in services. Despite cuts, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ Island Counseling Center (MVCS-ICC) continues to have emergency and urgent care services available 24/7 and will soon offer mobile crisis services in the community.
So what is the core of violence in our society? The movie industry perpetuates violence in many of its movies and so-called action films. Viewed by millions, many of whom are children, these films display vivid images of unimaginable violence, death, and destruction. Add to this the violent and very popular video games.
The known shooter in Connecticut spent his days alone in a dark basement playing violent video games. Despite his problems and his mother’s plan to commit him to a psychiatric facility, she left multiple guns unprotected in their house. His mother might have made a difference if she had sought help more actively and locked her guns up or placed them in protective police custody.
The response to Sandy Hook violence has been an increased concern not only in schools but throughout the community to see what can be done to identify possible perpetrators and seek help for them and to add security to their facilities and train those in the facility in lockdown procedures.
Professionals seem to have lowered their threshold of responding to behavior that in the past they might have ignored. Parents on the other hand seem to have a high level of denial about their own children and their children’s’ potential for violence.
It is indeed sad for our community to acknowledge that the safe, small community, treasured by so many, may also not be as safe as we believed. We too are vulnerable to random acts of violence.
I believe this community should come together and develop a common understanding of the issues, the risks, the warning signs and knowledge of early interventions for those who are isolated and disconnected from society. We need to understand that in every community, children see violence in their homes and view violence in movies, videos and TV. The response must address both improvements in funding and in the ability of the mental health system to be responsive to community need, plus well thought out changes to the gun control laws.
In closing, let us remember that communication, kindness, forgiveness, and humor are part of the foundation of a healthy society, and every person deep down wishes to be accepted and understood. It is our job to reach out to those with mental illness in attempts to understand and help them seek the treatment they need and, with successful treatment, to continue to welcome them as part of our society.
Helen Keller said, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot change everything, but I can change something.”Those of us at Island Counseling Center look forward to working with the community on this important issue.
Nancy Langman is the program director at Martha’s Vineyard Services’ Island Counseling Center. This is the text of remarks on gun violence and peace she made to the interfaith service at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center on Friday, January 4, 2013.