The best defense against gun violence in schools is early mental health intervention
By Angela Rogalski, senior print journalism major, Meek School of Journalism and New Media
In the ongoing rampage of violence and death sweeping the nation’s schools, guns are but one part of the equation. Along with the AR-15 Bushmaster assault rifle used to murder first graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it took a mentally disturbed individual to pull the trigger that left 27 people dead in his senseless wake.
Mississippi isn’t immune to school shootings; a gunman in Pearl, Mississippi, in 1997, killed two high school students and injured seven others after earlier killing his mother. And with ready access to weapons afforded by the state’s gun laws and a general lack of awareness as to mental health services available to those without insurance coverage, the state is not safe from potential future bloodshed such as that which struck Newtown, Connecticut, most recently.
In Oxford, where a 19-year-old high school dropout was recently arrested for threatening to blow up Oxford High School, only a tip by a Virginia man playing video games online defused a potentially deadly plot that police say they took quite seriously. The incident begs the question as to whether other earlier signs were overlooked that could have identified the potential problem at an earlier stage.
While the gun side of the equation is at least understood by most Mississippians, regardless of how they interpret the Second Amendment, Dr. Sandy Rogers, executive director of the Oxford office of Communicare, a community mental health center serving Calhoun, Lafayette, Marshall, Panola, Tate, and Yalobusha counties, believes the same cannot be said for the mental and psychological aspects of the problem.
“I think that our communities do not fully understand mental health issues and do not take full advantage of the mental health services that already exist. More education is needed to aid in reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness. Mental illness includes chronic disorders that affect more and more people every day.”
Rogers also feels that more programs are needed, and existing ones may need an overhaul.
“We definitely need more community based services, with an emphasis on financial support for service providers who take care of medically indigent individuals,” she said. “Our existing programs should be expanded, and in some cases revamped, but this is difficult to do when the core services often go unused.”
There are many centers and mental health programs available for Mississippi citizens, Rogers said, and affordable ways to pay for it.
“The state of Mississippi is covered by 15 community mental health centers. Each has a responsibility for providing services for a geographic region,” she said. “All of these centers offer a variety of services that are designed to deal with mental health and substance abuse issues. One clear advantage to mental health center care is that a treatment team approach is used, with therapists, case managers, nurses, psychiatrists, and other professionals providing care as a team.
Half the Battle
Rogers and other state mental health care professionals say that recognizing the resources that are available to communities is only half the battle in preventing mentally disturbed individuals from gaining access to weapons and fomenting acts of violence. Citizens also need to recognize the telltale signs that are often overlooked when it comes to the emotional and mental health of friends, relatives and neighbors.
Dixie Church, clinical director of adult services at Communicare, said that while there are some signs that people can look for which may indicate a problem, the threat of underlying violence is not that easy to determine.
“Predicting violence is very difficult,” Church said. “Some individuals threaten violence and never commit any violent acts, while others may never give any indication that violence is a factor right up to the moment that the violence occurs. Most individuals suffering from mental illness are not dangerous, but obviously some are. Worrisome signs are often ignored, unnoticed, or downplayed by family, friends, employers and teachers. Some of the most obvious signs—collecting weapons, changing behavior patterns, and threats—should be taken seriously no matter how often they occur.”
And when it’s a child who displays questionable tendencies, parents are often at a loss as to what to do, and what specifics to look for.
Connie Harris, clinical director for children’s services at Communicare, said there are behavioral signs that parents and teachers should watch for.
“I would say that delusional thoughts are one key thing to look for … people with deeply ingrained faulty beliefs,” Harris said. “And on the adolescent front, one might look for individuals who exhibit some of the following behaviors: frequent physical fights, loss of temper on a daily basis, increase in alcohol or drug use, increase in risk-taking behaviors, making threats or sharing plans to hurt others, enjoying hurting animals, refusal to acknowledge the feelings of or rights of others, the victim of bullying, withdrawal from friends and usual activities, access to weapons, gang membership or the desire to be in a gang, constant feelings of being rejected or alone, poor school performance or decrease in grades, history of discipline problems or run-ins with authority figures.”
Recognizing and seeking help for friends or family members with any emotional issues is something that anyone can do, Dr. Rogers said.
“Probably the most important action that family and friends can take when they see someone suffering from emotional problems is to try to get some sort of professional assistance for evaluation and care,” Rogers advised. “Help your friends seek mental health care as soon as symptoms present, rather than later. Help them develop an emergency plan for when they feel unstable. Remain calm; people in general become more agitated when others are nervous, angry, and fearful. Individuals are often unwilling to seek help on their own or may be unaware that they need help.”
And as for predicting and preventing the horrific events which happened in Newtown or at Columbine, Church said that there is no simple answer as to how we can accomplish that goal.
“Being prepared and focusing on security is important, but the school in Connecticut was fairly well prepared and catastrophe still occurred,” she said. “Identifying individuals who are at high risk for violence toward themselves or others may require more public education on risk factors and signs and development of established policies and procedures in schools and businesses, as to how people should proceed when they encounter someone whose behavior concerns them. In our country we value personal freedom and privacy very highly, so it is always a concern that we not infringe upon the rights of citizens to conduct their lives as they wish, provided they do not harm others in the process. No one has quite figured out how to balance these issues satisfactorily.”