The Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., spurred a national dialogue about the connection between gun violence and mental illness. Since the shooting, lawmakers and activists have debated what could have prevented 19-year old Nikolas Cruz from shooting 17 people.
“The mental health system is not great,” said Theresa Buhse, associate executive director of the Long Island Crisis Center in Bellmore. “We could certainly have more services for people with mental illness. I think everyone agrees on that. But, again, guns are easy to come across, so improvements could be made on both sides.”
The American Psychological Association, the largest professional organization of psychologists in the United States, shared a similar statement. “While law enforcement is still piecing together the shooter’s motives,” the APA said in a Feb. 16 news release, “some public figures and news reports are focusing on his mental health. It is important to remember that only a very small percentage [less than 1 percent] of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness.”
Buhse agreed with this stance. “Tying this to mental illness is really perpetuating the stigma that’s already attached to mental illness,” she said. “And it’s polarizing two groups: those who want to improve mental health care and those who want access to firearms.”
In New York, this debate reached an apex when, on March 5, Republicans in the State Senate introduced 15 bills aimed at preventing future mass shootings, though none would change existing gun laws.
Democrats, such as Sen. John Brooks, of Seaford, countered with a number of amendments, including one that would allow law enforcement to confiscate a weapon if the individual displayed “suspicious” or violent behavior, and their family sent their concerns to local police.
“We have to recognize that mental health is an issue here,” Brooks said, “but the access to some of these weapons and the types of weapons is also a factor.”
Educators play a large role in curbing the mental health crisis in America, Buhse noted. If mental health education “is done correctly,” she explained, “people see that mental illness is highly treatable and can be treated.”
Dr. Donald Sturz, the Levittown School District’s assistant superintendent for pupil services, said that his district emphasizes mental health education in districtwide programs, such as Levittown Education Against Destructive Decisions, that teaches students about living healthy lives, as well as small-group and individual counseling.
“The most important piece is that they have touchstones in their world,” Sturz said. “Who in the school building can they go to? Who’s in their family that they can go to? We never want a student to feel that they’re isolated in this.”
The Wantagh School District’s assistant superintendent for instruction, Dr. Marc Ferris, said that his district instructs teachers to learn about their students, and holds frequent meetings to discuss at-risk students and what can be done to support them socially, emotionally and academically.
According to Ferris, the district recently implemented PreVenture, a research-based program created by University of Montreal psychiatry professor Patricia Conrod, to identify students at risk for anti-social behavior such as bullying, school failure and drug use. The program, as Ferris explained, uses a survey to identify students who exhibit traits of helplessness, increased anxiety, impulsivity or negative thinking. The district then invites those students for small group training sessions to tackle their needs.
“If a student scores high on negative thinking,” Ferris said, “then the training is specific to improving the student’s sense of resiliency and helps them to think more positively.”
Ferris stressed the importance of treating mental illness, which he said has existed since the beginning of time, and emphasized that the main challenge with mental health is to get everyone to understand it and normalize treatment.
“When doctors and professionals are able to have access to the people in need,” Ferris said, “great strides can be made. Our job as a school is to make sure we know our students well, support them appropriately, and get them to the help they need when they need it.”