Gwyn Schneck, MEd, has a unique set of skills allowing her to guide students into promising opportunities and outcomes Read More
It’s happened again—another mass shooting at a college. I’m lying on the couch with a broken foot elevated and listening as the news media discusses why this continues to happen. It’s all I can do not to scream at the television. As a recently retired educator, I have watched the mass shooting phenomenon in our country since 1999 when the shooting at Columbine High School shocked the nation and changed school culture around the country. We have a huge, growing problem and it is not simply a gun problem.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree on universal background checks prior to purchasing guns. However, in many of the shootings over the last 20 years, including the one yesterday, background checks had been done and guns had been purchased legally. These legal guns are finding their way into the hands of severely mentally ill people. We can not turn the threat we are living under into a political issue and soapbox for one party or the other. We are losing the lives of innocent citizens; our kids. Let’s at least be honest to identify the biggest problem, and for the sake of our future, let’s begin to really identify legitimate solutions to this problem. Our biggest problem is the lack of resources and authority for the community and families of severely mentally ill young adults.
I will never forget April 20, 1999. In my mind this moment is permanently etched as one of those “where were you when” moments. I was at home sick from my job as a high school guidance counselor at a large suburban high school, very similar to Columbine. I turned on the television a little before noon and sat in horror as the reality unfolded. As I arrived at faculty meeting early the next morning, I was approached by a very concerned teacher. She had been awake all night thinking of one student and the fear that he could wreak the exact same horror on our campus. I calmed her down and promised to come into her class that day and observe the student. By the end of the day after the shooting at Columbine, I had the paperwork and signatures needed to begin evaluating this young man. Within days the school psychologist finished the eval and we knew the young man that was keeping his teacher awake at night was indeed mentally ill. This student marks the first of many in my career to identify as mentally ill at around age 17 or 18.
I’m happy to say that this particular story ended with a positive ending. The student received support by his family and school. With medication he was able to graduate high school. However, this is where the problem truly begins. As the student turns 18 years of age, he is deemed an adult and the parent is immediately cut off from decision making and information regarding the young adult’s mental health. Currently there is no way for the community or family of a severely mentally ill young adult to get them into therapy or treatment. Many of the families of the young men who have been involved in the mass shootings have known their sons were unstable and severely mentally ill. However, even if the family knows of potential instability, if the young adult will not cooperate and receive medical or mental treatment there is nothing the family can do regarding the health of the young adult. We need federal legislation allowing exceptions to the existing privacy laws in the case of mental illness. We, as a nation, have been so careful to protect individual’s medical privacy that we have stepped all over others’ most important right—the right to live. Medical personnel are so afraid of being sued that the mental health information is not given to the family or community of dangerous adults. What will it take to make the legislative changes needed to protect all of our citizens? As citizens we need to let our legislatures know that legislative change is needed ASAP. We need to all work together to make treatment and care for the severely mentally ill not only possible, but in fact, easily accessible.
Many people in our society are mentally ill, but functioning and taking full responsibility for their health. So how can we know which person is to the point of massacre and carnage? Ultimately, the family needs to be the main source of identification. Families must have the ability to get a young adult help when he can’t get it for himself. We have seen this over and over. As the community we need to reach out to any young adults that are on the fringe of society and perhaps dealing with mental illness. Befriend people and help them get help. We need to all work together to help our kids and young adults get the help they need. We can no longer turn away. As parents we must stay in close contact with all of our young adult children. They all need the guidance of their parents—not simply the mentally ill. Lastly, if there is a mentally ill young adult in your family, stay in close contact. Insist your way into their life. Know what they are doing with their time and check in on them often. If you sense danger for themselves or others contact police immediately. I hope soon there will be more resources and ways to get them the help they need. Before anyone else is hurt.