A Shot in the Dark: America’s Gun Problem is Really a Mental Health Problem

153737655We’re closing in on the end of January, and I’m already worried and doing a lot of hand-wringing over the mental health of our schoolchildren. In the news, we’ve seen school shootings and issues with weapons brought onto school campuses as well as a student in Colorado who set himself on fire in front of other students. A 17-year-old boy was shot in the wrist at a high school in Hawaii. Another student, at South Carolina State was killed last week after being shot. The news is riddled with these stories. Jackson, Tennessee. Roswell, New Mexico. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We can now add shopping malls to the list after the most recent shooting spree in a Columbia, Maryland mall where a young man who had written a note expressing his need for mental health ended up killing two shoppers. The list, for 2014, seems to be just beginning while our elected officials continue to fight about guns, but those aren’t the only weapons of course. Parents and school personnel are, understandably, upset.

We all are.

I’m not immune to the fear, either. The heightened sense of anxiety I feel these days is palpable. Ask anyone who works with children in schools how safe they feel, and they’ll tell you about the safety plans put in place. I’m sure they’re as tightly put together as can be. But ask them about how they feel, and take the temperature of their mental health, and I’ll bet they’re in the same boat as I am. It’s scary out here, and if I’m an adult who is trying to keep it together, just imagine how children feel. Our kids are quite in-tune with the news. They’re on social media, albeit in different ways and in some different apps that are targeted to kids, but they know.

It’s not that I don’t want a healthy debate about guns. Indeed, I do. I just know that when the suggestion is that school employees are asked to carry guns, it’s not a properly thought-out argument. First of all, we aren’t even allowed to bring sharp knives to school in case it gets into the hands of a child. Can you imagine the processes for keeping a (hopefully locked) gun and ammunition in the classroom where teachers are instructing students who are practicing comprehension skills and graphing linear functions? We already have students with mental health problems in our classrooms. One thing I can say without reservation is that teachers should NOT be responsible for keeping weapons in their spaces where learning is taking place. Period. Full stop.

Schools these days are more responsible for things than ever before. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have psychologists or social workers, because these were things relegated to the community to care for members. After schools began to employ them, knowing they had a captive audience in one spot, it became clear to me as an educator that mental health is a huge issue in our world. One of the pieces of my job is to ensure that our students, when in need, get directed to the proper resources if their families need the help. The other deans in my district get together once a month to visit a local service organization to become familiar with procedures and services they provide. This month we visited the children’s behavioral health center where I learned that they are an 88-bed facility serving children ages 3 through 17. There are inpatient and outpatient services as well as a partial program and a full-time hospital stay for them. Currently, they serve 77 kids who have come in with issues of homicidal and suicidal tendencies in order to keep them safe.

In my years of doing this, I have visited my own students in there a dozen times. There is a full-time teacher with whom I communicate to ensure that the educational instruction continues to be delivered when they’re hospitalized. The goal, I learned, is that there is no magical cure, but they can give kids coping mechanisms to co-exist with their mental health issues. Many people are familiar with eating disorders and cutting, but a large percentage of their clients suffer from anxiety and depression. Another percentage of them have brought weapons to school to hurt themselves or others.

Each time a school shooting occurs, the themes are the same about the students committing these crimes: they are a cry for help, their last-ditch effort to control their lives, or simply people, sometimes school children, who are fighting to make sense of what is really going on with them.

We have to stop suggesting that we would all be safer if we all carried guns, teachers included. My job as an administrator was never to pick up arms on the chance that someone would put the school under attack. Schools are already doing their best to ensure safety, but we must disabuse ourselves that gun-toting teachers is the answer. If it’s within our control, we are already trying it. We’re shaking every tree here.

But we forget that mental health is an enormous problem in this country, worldwide even, and have to work towards ridding our culture of the stigmas attached to it. It’s fine if a child needs help with their mental health, but let’s focus on that and stop being reactionary to keeping children safe. Let’s concern ourselves with how they’re doing emotionally as a preventative measure.

I’ll be the first one to admit that we’re ill-equipped in schools and communities even with everything we’re already doing. But, we could, all of us, be doing so much better.
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photo credit: Mike Licht, via photopin cc

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