Another school shooting tragedy occurred a few months ago, this time near Portland, Oregon. Two people, one being the gunman, were killed and one teacher was wounded. This school shooting came only weeks after Elliot Rodger’s rampage near the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) which left six people dead as well as himself. That incident, meanwhile, came just six weeks after another student stabbed 21 people at his Pittsburgh-area school. And, of course, the memories of the Newtown massacre continue to collectively haunt our country.
The more school-based violent attacks occur, the more our country collectively wrings its hands and shifts the conversation towards the familiar and contentious debate over gun control, and talking heads flood the airwaves opining about the dangers the persistently mentally ill pose to others. Political debates and fear-mongering over the specter of mental illness do not help us answer one basic question: Whose responsibility is it to help those who might commit such horrific acts, before they happen?
Parents, of course, would seem to shoulder most of the burden but even well-meaning and deeply committed parents are not always able to single-handedly combat the challenges severe mental illness may pose to their child. What about teachers? Should screening their students for potential killers be part of their job description? After all, confronting and taking down school shooters apparently is. What about potential attackers’ fellow peers? It’s certainly not anybody’s responsibility to befriend anyone else, but at the same time peer support and positive peer relationships are extremely important for developing healthy social skills and self-esteem, especially for adolescents. One need only to read the deranged, sad and disturbingly angry manifesto left by Elliot Rodgers and ask: Would you have been his friend? Who would have? Perhaps the UCSB counseling center could have helped Elliot Rodgers begin to work through his troubles….but they can only help when someone seeks out services. Or should it be the responsibility of schools to proactively screen for students that may pose a threat? If these tragedies can collectively teach us one thing, it is that predicting violence is extraordinarily difficult.
Looking beyond questions of prevention, little attention seems to be paid to how best to care for those affected by these tragedies. The students of course need vigorous social, community, and psychological support. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and grief are all common responses to witnessing a violent event like a school shooting. However the fellow students are not the only ones needing such support. Teachers are affected in all of the same ways, but their mental health needs in the aftermath of such tragedies are frequently overlooked. Finally the surrounding community itself will likely feel the emotional and mental aftershocks of such horrific events for months or years to come. The shock, stress, anxiety and fear which these events can incite in community members who were otherwise not directly affected can be formidable, and frequently unrecognized.
While the nation debates the merits of gun control, arming teachers, and spreading damaging misperceptions about the vast majority of those diagnosed with a severe mental illness, it remains more important than ever to pay closer attention to how our country prioritizes mental health and the consequences of not taking it seriously enough. It’s far beyond the scope of this blog to weigh in on the topic of gun control, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to recognize that the only side effect of increasing our nation’s prioritization and funding of mental health issues would be a healthier, and better cared for, population.