I'd like to begin this blog by saying this was a very difficult piece to write. Being a mother of two, a sister, a daughter, and an educator, I feel a helpless pain for the victims, family members and loved ones affected by Friday's horrific massacre. I have tried to embrace this piece with sensitivity, as I answer the questions of how to discuss the incident with your child, the importance of faith, and the role of mental health care.
Across the nation Friday morning, millions of parents embraced their children and sent them off to school. Never in a million years did they think "is my child safe?" or "will she or he come home today?" The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, rocked the very foundation of one town and the aftershock spread throughout America. Now heavy laden hearts mourn for the innocent lives of sweet children, and their teachers and educators. Left in the aftermath of the massacre are many unanswered questions, a grieving town, and nation that is trying to explain the inexplicable.
How to discuss what happened with your child?
Less is better, don't expose your child to news unless you have to. In the event your child did hear something and asks questions, answer them with simplicity. You don't have to give long philosophical discussions. When answering questions project calmness, confidence in your answers and a nurturing environment. Don't keep the TV on when your child is running around the house, they don't need to be exposed to all of the pictures flashing across the screen. Give your children lots of love and answer questions that come up with certainty. Also answer questions in a developmentally appropriate way. For example, young children need to feel secure and safe. Reassure them that this is a very rare event. Try to establish their routine as soon as possible. Young children aren't as good at verbalizing their emotions and may act out behaviorally. Watch for behavioral signs of distress. Most importantly, be patient...healing takes time.
While we may be able to shelter our young children from bad news, it becomes harder when they're older. From my own experience, I learned of the shooting as I was leaving work with my middle school aged son. A co-worker approached me and shared what had happened at Sandy Hook Elementary. I felt shock and confusion race through my body... I can only imagine what was going through my son's head. My eyes were misty, as my son and I went on with our routine journey of walking over to pick up my daughter at the elementary school. My heart was broken thinking of how much I love my own children, and how the parents must be feeling and grieving for theirs. Lost in silence, my son looked at me and asked the very question I was struggling with, "Why would someone do that, mom?" I stopped and looked at him and replied "he was sick son, mentally sick... and we'll probably never understand the "why" when something is the product of evil." I took that time to focus on praying for the victims and for those who were helping the families: ministers, therapists, first responders, police officers, medical personnel, the list goes on and on... We asked God to give all those involved strength as they carried out their jobs and to be with the families and relatives. I took that moment to focus on something other than our small chat, I took that opportunity to talk to my son about our beliefs, values, and God.
Where was GOD?
That's a question that frequently comes up when there's a catastrophe. I too found myself asking that very question. How could God let this happen? As I tried to wrap my own thoughts around the question, I found my response came from my own faith. My response was that God did not do this, but he's there in the aftermath. Turn on the TV and you'll see grief counselors helping those who are mourning, emergency personnel assisting those in need, clergy helping those cope, emails, cards, and toys being sent from miles away. While anger will swirl out of the evil massacre in CT., I believe that love and goodness (God) will prevail. People will reach out to their neighbors and a community will embrace its members. Prayers will be said from every nook and cranny throughout every state, county, city, and town in this great nation. We will come together. Newtown mourns and a nation mourns with them. Thousands will attend vigils, light remembrance candles, place flowers at memorials, fly the flag half-staff and pray for those affected by the tragedy because we are "one nation under God..."
Are we getting enough mental health care in America?
How can one person commit such an evil act? Were there warning signs? While details are still coming out about the twenty year old shooter Adam Lanza, I predict in the upcoming days we'll find out that there were many behavioral red flags and possibly one or two mental illnesses. Newscast after newscast focuses on how we can prevent this from happening again. And that brings up a very good question. Are we getting enough mental health care in this country?
According to NIMH (National Institute for Mental Health), it is estimated that 26% of Americans, yes that's one in four, meet the criteria for a mental disorder in a given year. About 6%, or one in seventeen, suffer from a serious mental illness. Additionally, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada. Many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a time. Approximately 45% of those with a mental disorder meet criteria for two or more disorders. As a country we need to do a better job de-stigmatizing mental health in America. With a quarter of our population suffering from a mental disorder, there needs to be more avenues for those affected to get help. So, to answer the question, "no", we aren't getting enough mental health care in America.
I am a firm proponent of educating the public about the importance of mental health treatment and the effects of mental illness on individuals and their families. It is past time that families have to hide a loved one with mental health issues out of shame and fear of what others will think, a lack of understanding about mental illness, and worse yet, a lack of resources. Collectively, we need to take necessary steps to be proactive and get help for the mentally ill by becoming a nation that's pro-mental health care. There are real consequences for not treating mental illness. If we can address them early we can help the individual, the family, and maybe even save a community from experiencing a tragedy.
From a parent, sister, daughter, and educator, my heartfelt condolences go out to all of those affected by the Newtown tragedy.