"Mom," lamented my twenty-something daughter the morning after the news about Sandy Hook began to sink in. "This is so awful. Something's got to be done about gun control!" "Gun control absolutely," I replied. "But what about mental illness? That's the deeper issue."
Not to diminish the long-overdue opportunity to deal with gun control head-on, but as someone who works daily with nonprofits to engage individuals in their communities about their real work, I repeat what I said to my daughter: "What about mental illness?"
It sure seems like this is the seize-able moment, if ever there were one, to shine the light on the mental health issue. Whether your organization's primary focus is on children's mental health, domestic violence, substance abuse, or adult behavioral health, the Sandy Hook shootings are now top of mind for many in your community who may have avoided anything to do with mental health in the past. How can you and your staff make a concerted effort to seize the moment, whether in your media, your social media, or good old fashioned word-of-mouth?
- First, tell them in a nutshell (or remind them) what your organization does, how long you've been there, and why you do the work you do.
- Next, if you haven't already done so, smarten yourself up on the statistics about mental illness and assault weapons in your community. Prepare a cheat sheet for your staff with these statistics and how they overlap with your client population. Make the connection responsibly and powerfully between your organization's work and what happened at Sandy Hook. If you work with children and families, talk about the incidence of family violence that exists in your community. If you run a group home for teens with mental illness or a shelter for street youth, share trends or stories about the dangers of mixing mental illness and weapons. How many children, adults, or families do you serve daily, weekly, or monthly, who have been victims of violence or are capable of committing heinous acts of violence? Don't sugar-coat the facts.
- Share statistics and stories that illuminate them about the positive impact of treatment. Let people know that treatment works. If necessary, for confidentiality purposes, alter facts and/or piece together a composite story from multiple clients served by your organization. Paint the picture with details. Give the person a fictitious name and age but stick to the truth of the story as much as possible.
Include at least three specific things your organization did to alter the course of life for this client or family. Stress the skilled training needed to deal with such situations. Avoid any jargon or vague references to the "treatment" your staff provided or terms like "dual diagnosis." Instead, give specifics like: we provided counseling to get him to let out his rage at his mother, medication to help him manage his anger, art therapy where she drew pictures of the guns in her father's closet.