School Shooting Brings Mental Illness to Forefront

The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in idyllic Newtown, Connecticut left 20 children and 6 adults dead and sent a nation into mourning. News outlets and social media sites are buzzing with stories, conjecture, sympathy and strong opinions. Reporters were still clarifying early misconceptions – the shooter’s mother had been a teacher at the school, he had killed both is parents, the older brother had been the perpetrator instead of the younger one –  when political rants turned up on Facebook and opinion pieces started to crop up in newsfeeds.

This is a sensitive topic and emotions are raw, so it can be hard to have calm, thoughtful discussions. But still we feel the need to talk, as our conversations will help us make sense of a senseless tragedy or just make us feel less alone or helpless. As the public dialogue continues, a few issues are brought up again and again. One is gun control. The other is mental illness.

Gun control is a natural topic to address after a shooting like this. There are those who insist that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, while the other side maintains that, if guns weren’t so readily available, shootings like this wouldn’t happen. It’s a passionate debate that has led to many heated arguments.

Mental illness isn’t such a clean-cut issue. It is much harder to determine where the sides are and what is to be done. While it’s easy to agree that someone who could callously take the lives of innocent children must be mentally ill, we don’t know exactly what that means or how to help.

There aren’t the same cries for legislation for or against. Those in the mental health field and those who have watched a loved one struggle with mental illness would agree that the issue is complex, widespread and continuing to grow.

Who is suffering from mental illness?

8.6 million adults had serious thoughts of suicide in the past year.

20 Percent of the US population suffered from a mental illness in the past year

The Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality’s recent Data Spotlights found that an annual average of 8.6 million adults 18 or older (3.8 percent) had serious thoughts of suicide in the past year. The mental illness statistics are even more alarming. The 2010-2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health Model-Based Estimates show that nearly 20 percent of the US population suffered from a mental illness in the past year. That figure includes any diagnosable mental, behavioral or emotional disorder, other than a developmental or substance use disorder,  that met the criteria found in the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). This includes depression, PTSD, trauma, bipolar and other related disorders.

This points to a mental health crisis in our country, but it’s a crisis that doesn’t get a lot of airtime. That may be due to the ongoing stigma of mental illness or the fact that the problem is still so misunderstood. Sufferers are also reluctant to share details of their mental health issues for fear of being labeled or treated differently. We go on with the same misconceptions, until something like Sandy Hook happens. Then the spotlight shines on mental illness for a few brief minutes.

Here’s hoping that this time the attention this topic gets can lead to a better understanding and some lasting change in our attitudes toward mental illness.

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