The Friendship Doctor

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On Access: Mental Health and Guns

Easy access? Not to mental health services

I’ve had difficulty writing or blogging for the past two days. The devastating events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday seem to overshadow the significance of every other pressing concern or problem, mine and everyone else’s.

Nonstop coverage on television and radio 24/7 makes it hard to avoid dwelling on the sadness. And when you turn off the news you can’t really escape the tragedy of what has happened and the indelible mark it will leave on so many lives. Messages about the shootings seem to dominate Facebook posts and Twitter messages as well.

My friend’s father died of esophageal cancer this week, not an inconsequential event, yet she made the point of telling me that at least he had lived a full life—unlike the twenty angels and their teachers who perished in the Newtown tragedy. Even her grief over the loss of a parent was superseded by the horrific news of innocent children perishing.

Investigators continue to search for facts and answers? What justification could there ever be for a 20-year-old young man to shoot his mother multiple times in the head, or to senselessly kill innocent children and their teachers? No matter what possible motives are found or conjectured, they will be incomprehensible to the rational mind.

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Unfortunately, this mass shooting appears to be one more example of the deadly confluence of guns and mental illness. Most mentally ill individuals aren’t violent and even when someone’s illness has been diagnosed and treated, it’s still extraordinarily difficult to predict violent behavior.

Yet, there are gaping holes in our poorly funded mental health system. Too many families struggle with overwhelming problems behind closed doors. Our society has largely abrogated responsibility for treatment services and supports—for at-risk and even, for very severely disabled individuals with mental, emotional and developmental disorders—shifting the burden to families.

Our legislators have failed to enact meaningful gun control legislation, which makes it too easy for guns to get in the wrong hands. Access to legal and illegal guns seems easier than access to mental health treatment. This imbalance needs to be reversed.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, this unthinkable massacre, and the dire economy, much of the joy of the holidays has been swept away for many individuals, either directly or indirectly. It’s a time to pay more attention to yourself and others.

If you know someone who is likely to feel blue over the holidays, be sensitive and don’t overdo the merriment and good cheer. Figure out which friends, relatives, or neighbors you can help and what you can do. Sometimes even a “Hi, I’m thinking of you” phone call helps. Reminding them they aren’t alone may be all they need to get over this holiday hump.

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If you, a friend, relative or anyone else you know seem to be experiencing some of the signs of stress, depression or anxiety that may be associated with a disaster, call the toll free Disaster Distress Hotline at 1-800-985-5990 or text them at 66746.

Signs of distress may include any of the following physical and emotional reactions:

  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Stomachaches or headaches
  • Anger, feeling edgy or lashing out at others
  • Overwhelming sadness
  • Worrying a lot of the time; feeling guilty but not sure why
  • Feeling like you have to keep busy
  • Lack of energy or always feeling tired
  • Drinking alcohol, smoking or using tobacco more than usual; using illegal drugs
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Not connecting with others
  • Feeling like you won’t ever be happy again
  • Rejecting help

Resource for Parents to Help Their Children:

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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