Another school shooting has left a community in anguish. Residents of Marysville, Wash., will no doubt grieve for a long time, not just for the victims but for the loss of their previous sense of security. Moms, dads, teachers and students will be on high alert, their fear at the forefront of their daily lives.
"For years policymakers and others have been arguing about what to do in the aftermath of horrifying tragedies like this one,” said Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, in a statement. “By then, it is too late—we always seem to learn later that the signs of distress were present, and often neglected, for years.”
Gionfriddo makes the point that legislators continue to be reactive to violent tragedies like Marysville and Newtown, Conn., rather than proactive. No one would sit idly by and watch a young adult’s cancer diagnosis progress to Stage 4 before offering treatment, and yet, that is exactly how mental health has been addressed in this country.
Obviously, it’s a multifaceted problem that will require a package of solutions from policymakers and from the behavioral health industry itself.
Last December, in the wake of hearings related to the Newtown shootings, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) introduced a bill that includes a provision to fund research on earlier intervention that could reduce violent behavior in those with untreated mental conditions. H.R. 3717 gained bipartisan support, but progress ultimately withered. Its chances of passing appear slim at this point.
But could something as hard-boiled as government legislation prevent future school shootings before they happen? It’s extremely difficult to quantify things that don’t happen, so even if a good policy were adopted, opponents could easily claim it doesn’t work and chip away at funding. Proposed policies also tend to go through several iterations, making them less potent each time.
Mental Health America has long stressed that interventions must occur far upstream—long before violence, incarceration or involuntary treatment. The organization calls for ubiquitous mental-health screening; a focus on children; more treatment options; reduced reliance on the justice system; and a focus on recovery. Gionfriddo says one of the biggest mistakes is defaulting to law enforcement rather than behavioral health providers.
Perhaps an equally big mistake is to default to policymakers. Forget legislation for just a minute. What else might you do to prevent the next school shooting from happening in your community? Ordinary individuals and informed health providers do have the power to stop a tragedy in its tracks. I guarantee your counterparts will be willing to listen.