Missed Lesson of Sandy Hook Elementary School Murders
Friends, friends of friends and total strangers emotionally raw over the mass murder of students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, expressed rage all weekend on my social media networks about the presence of guns in our society.
The theme carried over to mainstream media outlets. Here's a sampling of today's lineup of opinion columns at washingtonpost.com:
It's astounding how the near-singular focus has been on the weapons used in the killings rather than the circumstances over months and years that led the individual who perpetrated the tragedy to open fire at the school. I'm neither a gun owner nor an apologist for the gun lobby. But we could pass strict gun ownership laws and continue to be faced with these heartbreaking events if we fail to address the role played by our mental healthcare system.
Liza Lang, a writer from Boise, ID, generated much attention with her essay, "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother," posted online just after the school shootings. "I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me," she writes. She recounts experiences with her high-IQ, 13-year-old son, who she says has threatened to kill her and himself with a knife, among many other incidents. At a loss for answers, she was told by a social worker her only recourse is to have her son charged with a crime.
"No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail," she writes. "But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options."
Perhaps these conditions are an unintended consequence of the deinstitutionalization movement, which eliminated vast numbers of beds in public psychiatric hospitals and thus limited opportunities for providing comprehensive treatment - and exposed society to violent outbursts that seem to compound in degree of random horror.
It gets back to the stigma surrounding mental health. Evidence-based practice in psychiatric care is deficient, a longtime psych nurse admitted to me this morning. The relative paucity of knowledge about the human brain, combined with myriad psychiatric theories, medications that are not always effective or consistently used, and the legacy of abuse in now-shuttered public psychiatric hospitals, leads to public distrust of mental health treatment.
We surely could use a mature discussion of why civilians should possess semiautomatic guns, rifles and other weapons. But it sure feels like another political sideshow warming up - lines have been drawn on familiar partisan terrain in the days following the shootings.
Let's not allow the noise and hyperbole generated by gun-control fervor to trample the need for an equally urgent dialogue about mental healthcare services. Mental health research needs to become a top priority of public and private funding organizations, and vastly greater numbers of psychiatric beds are needed. Families and acquaintances of affected individuals, as well as the court system, should have more tools at their disposal to get those individuals treatment.
Of course, not everyone who requires mental health services is a danger to society. But this is an ideal time for mental health advocates to speak up for their cause. Nurses in all areas of practice can also take the lead by offering education and bringing mental health concerns into conversations about care. Nurses can help establish trust in treatment, which will go a long way toward eliminating stigma.