New trauma and despair is front and center in the US as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting unveiled the deaths of 20 children and 6 adults. The death of children is always shocking. The innocence and futures lost are rapidly exonerated from our grasp, leaving us breathless and frozen in grief. Families will begin to face the emptiness of their loss and the depth of their grief as the days continue. Additionally, the survivors, both children and adults, will potentially suffer from PTSD as a result of seeing and surviving such horrors. There will be deep sadness, depression, and self-doubt. There will be mental-health issues that need to be tended to, whether we like it or not. Remember, grief is a staged process with no specific order or end date.
Mental health is once again in the headlines, screaming at us to pay attention and dive in to find a solution to a problem which is no longer able to sustain its place as the “elephant in the room.” The list of tragic and heinous events where someone possibly suffering from untreated mental health issues and acts out in egregious violence is getting longer and longer. We blame guns, we blame the parents, we blame the circumstances surrounding the events, but mental illness tends to be an afterthought or worse yet, an excuse. Parents who sit in denial of their child’s mental illness is a problem; poor circumstances and/or degenerative environments are a problem; and untreated mental illness is a problem. There are solutions to all of these problems, especially when we address them early on.
In the midst of our deep grief, it’s time to find a way to look at the causative factors that drives a human being to take the lives of innocent children. Our cultural denial and stigmatization of mental health is detrimental to the ultimate well being and healing of our society. In the 1980s, when the government closed several mental health facilities, placing many on the streets with their illnesses left untreated, we had a first glimpse of what mental health looks like when left out in the open: unaddressed and swept aside. This denial lends itself to putting our blinders on when it comes to the imbalances of our minds, pretending they’ll “work themselves out.” They usually don’t. The field of psychiatry has made great strides to discover and treat the varying mental illnesses that affect individuals, but the greatest barrier is typically the denial of the illness by families and the individuals themselves. We have to begin by asking for help. We must begin unraveling the stigma wrapped so tightly around mental illness and replacing it with treatment.
Some signs to watch for in your kids:
- Often angry or worried
- Feel grief for a long time after a death
- Using alcohol or drugs
- Sudden changes in weight
- Withdrawal from favorite activities
- Harming self or others
- Destroying property: yours or others
The only stigma left is the stigma of denial.
SAMSHA also lists the following as types of people and places that will make a referral to, or provide, diagnostic and treatment services.
- Family doctors
- Mental health specialists, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, or mental health counselors
- Religious leaders/counselors
- Health maintenance organizations
- Community mental health centers
- Hospital psychiatry departments and outpatient clinics
- University- or medical school-affiliated programs
- State hospital outpatient clinics
- Social service agencies
- Private clinics and facilities
- Employee assistance programs
- Local medical and/or psychiatric societies
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