By Harold S. Koplewicz, MD
October 20, 2015
The most disturbing response to the mass shooting last week at Umpqua Community College in Oregon has been the powerless shrug. The one that says “I wish things were different, but what are you going to do?”
As an American, I find it astonishing that the response to an acknowledged issue of national importance is apathy (or helplessness). I am frustrated that the apparent lessons of Columbine and Newtown, Charleston and now Umpqua, to name just a few, are that every so often we must let a young person slip through the cracks and take with him innocent lives. That attitude makes the surprisingly un-American assumption that there is nothing to be done, which should ring false to the nation that has confronted everything from traffic fatalities to the AIDS epidemic.
Worse, it feeds and cedes power to what is now unmistakably a self-perpetuating cycle of violence. With the next shooting a foregone conclusion, and the CNN graphics to display the shooter’s name and image already designed, it spreads like a contagion.
But as a child psychiatrist, I am also confident in the constructive steps we can take to interrupt this heartbreaking cycle and take positive lessons from past tragedies—If we embrace action instead of inaction. I suggest two places to turn our focus as a start, and the first is the media. We need to take a lesson from college administrators, who know that when a student commits suicide, large-scale memorials are to be avoided because of the follow-on suicides that can occur, sparked by the recognition conferred by ceremony.
This phenomenon is just as clear when a young person takes other lives, as well as his own. Our fascination, and the media’s efforts to satisfy it, send a terrible message to deeply troubled youth: Terrible violence gets attention and validation. Shooters are frequently found to have obsessed over the examples of those before them. Our response as a national community should be to not glamorize, glorify, or even acknowledge them.
When these events occur, we must encourage the media to report the news—and that is the stories of the victims and their grieving families, the magnitude of what we have lost. The news is not the troubled hopes, dreams, and fantasies of a killer. The news is not his name and photograph on the front page. This takes momentum away from the cycle of violence, and focuses energy where it should be: with victims, with survivors, with problem solvers.
The second place we should turn our attention is the place where we can all agree our national community gets its strength and purpose: the family. Families come in different shapes and sizes, but all of them find that when it comes to mental illness, they are too often flying blind. We need to make a much more meaningful effort to provide information, support, and treatment so parents of troubled young people know what to do and where to go before their children hurt themselves or others.
Parents should be educated to know the warning signs that their children may be struggling with a psychiatric disorder. Families and communities should understand that social isolation can be self-perpetuating, and is very harmful for kids with emotional and developmental problems, and be on the lookout for ways to help.
Parents need to feel comfortable reaching out to professionals for help, which means educating our primary care physicians, pediatricians, and general practitioners so that they themselves are comfortable having those conversations.
Finally, schools and universities need to be better attuned to the mental and behavioral health of their communities, and better equipped to voice those concerns—with the students themselves, with parents, with medical professionals before a student drops out or gets expelled.
What everyone needs to know is that people with psychiatric disorders are no more likely to be violent than the general population. And the most important risk factor for violence, whether it’s to oneself or to others, or even accidental, is the presence of firearms. They have the capability of magnifying sad stories and making poor decisions irrevocable, whether it’s a person who is angry at his boss or one who feels desperately alienated from his peers.
Instead of shrugging at an impossible problem, how about we start by striving to give every child and family basic access to a mental health care system that works, that betters lives and supports families, and starts to address the millions of children and adults in danger of slipping away from society every day?
Even in the face of cynical apathy I am hopeful, because we’ve also been here before. We’ve experienced inflection points in history when people went from not mattering to mattering, when death was no longer considered the cost of doing business, when we as a country embraced our fellow Americans with compassion and respect. There is no reason to think we can’t do it again.
Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute in New York City, is one of the nation's leading child and adolescent psychiatrists.