What can we learn from the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut? Who can we hold responsible for the senseless tragedies that shock our nation and the world to its very core? For many who have children, it’s a reminder of the horror that could happen to our own children. It would be easier to blame it on the single gunman who committed this heinous act. I think life is more complex than that. If you choose to believe that this is a problem that could never happen in your child’s school, you’re just burying your head in the sand. These incidents happen in the best and worst communities. There are no easy patterns to detect that can help keep your child safe. That being said, I’d like to share several thoughts as you begin to return to normalcy of everyday life.
The first thing is to focus on the heroism of the people who worked to save the children’s lives in Newtown. These events happened quickly and yet several teachers and administrators moved swiftly to protect the children. They served as human shields for many of the children and their brave actions saved countless lives. Other individuals responded in the way they were trained and moved other children out of harm’s way. When they couldn’t get the children out they helped hide and comfort them. Recently uncovered developments also show the courage of many of the children who were threatened during this shooting rampage. Their ability to say the right thing at the right time continues to amaze the people around them. Even at this early age they displayed a grace under fire that few of us might be able to achieve at our advanced ages.
We should also thank the first responders for their quick reaction. This may have saved the lives of many teachers and children who couldn’t get out of the school. Based on news media coverage, they were on site within minutes of when the shootings began. I cannot imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t shown up so quickly. I’ve worked with many first responders in my career. There is not a braver group of men or women on the planet. My aunt Carol was a Chaplain for many first responders in Northern Ohio. She would share some of the challenges the first people through the door would experience. These people are some of the true heroes in our society. In this case, many of these brave men and women weren’t sure what they would find on the other side of the school doors. They responded with typical courage and bravery. For many, there will be lingering effects from this tragic day. No training you receive can prepare you for what they saw upon entering the school. For some of them with children, the fear that it might be their child or friend’s child made this situation even more difficult to deal with. They did it with amazing grace and skill.
The second thing is to consider why this happened. In this case, the shooter was known to have emotional problems and was unable to obtain weapons in the traditional way. The key question is how we stop people from getting guns. My answer will not comfort you. I believe people who are bent on the destruction of others will keep finding new ways of killing their fellow man. If you look throughout history one of the most consistent themes is the willingness of a madman to create new ways of killing others. This tragedy will spark new arguments for gun control. The sad truth is gun control won’t keep guns out of the hands of people like this shooter. Even in countries with strict gun laws like Great Britain and Denmark, school shootings have occurred. At some point we have to acknowledge that the problem isn’t the guns, but the people shooting the guns. We have to recognize that the only way to stop these events from happening is to treat the problem proactively. The deep dark secret is that mental illness is the root cause of many of these senseless shootings.
I’ve been through many competency hearings for my mentally ill mother. I’ve also been a character witness for a number of other mentally ill people I’ve known. I’ve been dealing with it since my mid- teens and they never seem to get any easier. If anything, these competency hearings have become increasingly complex and less likely to produce the result that society needs to keep people safe. The mental health aspects of this tragedy will be debated for years to come. The problem that I see is that the judicial system has become too lenient on patients with mental illness. In pursuit of a more peaceful solution, many judges choose to release people who might be best taken care of in the health care system. Many judges are fearful of making a wrong decision and through this process, the system breaks down. I’ve worked with many mental health professionals in my career and almost all of them struggle with problems that cannot be easily solved in the current mental health evaluation processes.
They will tell you of judges who refuse to support their findings, are uneducated in the areas of mental health, and refuse to take a stand against people who may be harmful to themselves, their families, or their communities. Many psychiatrists and psychologists have been sued for their decisions so they fear reprisals when they make their recommendations to the court. Many health care systems are moving away from offering mental health advice to their subscribers. They cannot afford the legal bills. In keeping with HIPAA, many primary care physicians cite patient confidentiality when dealing with mentally ill patients. They don’t share with caregivers what options may be available to help take care of these patients. This is an unintended consequence of the new health care regulations.
The final thing I would share with you is that you can choose to ignore what is going on in society. You can tell yourself that these things will never happen in your homes or schools. Too many people choose this path for their lives. I’ve worked on aspects of the problems of mental health. I’ve noticed that these incidents are occurring more frequently today than in the past. Our society has become desensitized to violence. We must become more involved in our community. We must learn how to share our concerns with others in a way that allows authorities to use their judgment in protecting our communities. We can blame others for this occurring everywhere. We might be better served by looking in the mirror.