Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Not Just About Guns, Not Just About Mental Illness

Reflections on the tragedy in Newtown

As I write this post, I’m less than one week away from the date my first child is due to be born.

When I watched and listened to the news about the tragedy in Newtown last Friday, I viewed it from the perspective of a not-quite-yet parent.

But, I also viewed it from the perspective of someone with a family history of mental illness.

Last night, as I thought of my friends who would be sending their small children back to school today, I realized: It is terrifying to think of your child being in a school where there is a shooting. And it is terrifying to think of your child being the shooter.

Like many people who have a family history of mental illness, for many years, thinking about having a child meant thinking that child might inherit more than my father’s eyes, hairline, or analytical nature. It meant thinking, “What if my child inherits my father’s mental illness?”

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As a mental health professional, I’d like to think that I’d know the right things to do. In reality, I know that there are no protections for parents; when it comes to one’s own child, all the thought, effort, prevention, treatment, intervention, or money in the world can sometimes not be enough to make it better. But, making it better isn’t just about what parents can do for their own children. It’s about what we, as a society, can do to make it easier for people with mental illness to have better lives.

What kind of world do I want my child - this child of so much possibility - to be born into?

I want my child to be born into a world that asks questions and doesn’t look for easy answers. 

For me, at the cusp of this auspicious time, it’s not just about decreasing access to guns. It’s not just about increasing access to mental health services. It’s not just about violent video games, or other cultural influences on thinking.

For me, as a not-quite-yet parent, as a person with a family history of mental illness, and as a public health social worker, it’s about all of these pieces, and how they fit together.

I want my child to be born into a world that sees how all of these pieces fit together.

One of my mentors, Betty Ruth at the Boston University School of Social Work, posed a series of questions to alumni today that I’d like to share with you. I couldn’t have framed them better:

  • How do we create meaningful, accessible mental health services that young people will utilize?
  • How can we cross classes and cultures—including the formidable gun culture—and begin to have conversations about prevention?
  • How can we support fragile families; schools that can’t afford mental health services, people who don’t have insurance that covers what is needed for their troubled children?
  • How can we help traumatized families, even if there are no funds to support those efforts?
  • Can we begin to talk about changing the way we do “mental health” so that it isn’t so stigmatized, difficult to access, and avoided?
  • Can we create a new community mental health, that it isn’t all based on pathology and diagnosis-driven “interventions?”
  • Can we begin to step outside the medical model to begin to talk about the social environment in meaningful ways that change the way we in social work and in mental health generally, “do” service “provision?”

As we try to move on from the shock and fear that has reverberated nationwide, as we watch President Obama speak not just as a politician, but as a parent, let’s ask some of these questions. Let’s hold ourselves accountable for the future.

Elana Premack Sandler, M.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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