Retrospective on the Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary

mental health graphicLast year’s tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School started a national conversation about mental health and violence — a conversation that the University of Southern California as an institution has not shied away from. The USC School of Social Work has contributed to the discussion to ensure the tragedy does not further stigmatize those who suffer from mental illness and to propose solutions that could have a real impact.

In a recent op-ed, Laura Gale, LCSW, a lecturer in the Virtual Academic Center, discussed the concern that all people with mental illness will be perceived as being potentially violent when, in fact, this is not the case.

Gale said the stigmatization of mental illness has a negative impact on the quality and quantity of treatment services available. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that most people with mental illness are not violent, except in cases of psychosis or comorbid substance abuse. In these cases, writes Gale, the connection between mental illness and violence “is true only if the mental illness is left untreated.” In many of the recent mass shootings, the killers exhibited disturbing behavior and other signs of mental illness before committing murder, but nothing was done to prevent their actions. Gale calls on social workers to engage in meaningful discussions about mental health and to educate family, friends and clients about the importance of treatment and to fight the growing atmosphere of stigma.

Professor Ron Avi Astor discussed the issue of guns on school campuses in an op-ed featured on Astor, who holds joint appointments at the USC School of Social Work and USC Rossier School of Education, calls attention to the persistent problem of elementary and secondary school students bringing lethal weapons to class. He cites federal statistics that show there were 33 school-associated violent deaths in the nation in the 12 months preceding June 30, 2010; many of these deaths were caused by young students who used weapons against fellow students.

Astor encourages principals and teachers to initiate discussions with students and parents about the presence of weapons in schools and their use as a means of intimidation. He also would like to see schools create a procedure that will allow students to anonymously report potential threats. Schools that have created these communication channels in the past decade report that incidents have been successfully thwarted as a result.

“The best prevention of student-instigated violence on campus is an educated, well-trained and caring school community in which everyone understands what to do when they see a weapon on campus and why it might save lives to act,” Astor said.

A group of social work researchers, practitioners and associated organizations led by Astor responded to the acts of violence at Sandy Hook by updating their 2006 School Shootings Position Statement. The statement recognizes two key factors in recent mass shooting incidents: the presence of severe mental illness in the shooter coupled with an intense interpersonal conflict. Increased awareness of these factors and better access to mental health services are seen as positive ways of addressing. On the subject of increasing school security to make schools safer, the group supports a thoughtful approach based on balance, communication, connectedness and support.

As social workers, we will be challenged to answer many of these tough questions at some point in our careers. Through advocacy for our clients who suffer from mental illness and education aimed at the wider public on the true nature of mental health disorders, we can begin to tackle these issues in an effective way.