School Climate & Safety Opinion

Schools, Violence, and Mental Health

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 27, 2013 5 min read
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Public schools have the opportunity to impact more future citizens of the world than any other institution. Creating and maintaining emotional environments that teach, nurture, and maintain healthy behaviors is an essential element of our responsibility to maintain physically safe environments in which our students can learn. Teaching and modeling civility and respect and teaching children learn how to express their emotions is paramount.

What drives us to use angry and destructive behavior and what drives us to be violent may be an inability to successfully express what is happening inside of us. We do not suggest children and adults who act out as bullies or with violence are mentally ill. We do argue that all of us benefit if children are taught to healthfully process their emotions. Merriam-Webster describes being resilient as being able to “be strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.” How good are we at being resilient and how good are we at teaching children how to be? What if this is a key to obtaining and maintaining one’s mental health?

As we move ahead to eliminate bullying and teach students to stand up and speak out against bullies, how are we reaching those who bully? Is the violence they inflict a result of not knowing how to moderate and process their own emotions? Might we be able to impact rising violence by helping students learn how to deal with challenging emotions?

School shootings have been documented to have occurred as far back as the 1700’s. Wikipedia reports as the twentieth century unfolded, the number of school shootings increased. In the first fourteen years of the twenty-first , we have had 86 school shootings. A review of the list of school shootings in the Wikipedia article unveils a common thread of revenge. And following the incidents, many of the shooters turned the gun on themselves.

As educators, we are not mental health experts and are not prepared to work with students who are diagnosed with mental illness without partnering with psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors, special educators and parents. Disconnection between and among these resources puts all at risk. While we are working closely with our partners to help our mentally ill students, there are those just under the surface who are struggling with their emotions and appropriate expression of them. They, too, are at risk. While the gun debate goes on, urgency is ours. We have students in our schools who need help.

The Community Mental Health Act turns 50 on October 31st. This was the last piece of legislation signed into law by President John F. Kennedy. He signed this legislation into law just two weeks before Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated him. The Warren Commission Report refers to the mental health concerns raised in Oswald’s youth and states,

Oswald was remanded for psychiatric observation to Youth House, an institution in which children are kept for psychiatric observation or for detention pending court appearance or commitment to a child-caring or custodial institution such as a training school. He was in Youth House from April 16 to May 7, 1953, during which time he was examined by its Chief Psychiatrist, Dr. Renatus Hartogs, and interviewed and observed by other members of the Youth House staff.

Michelle R. Smith has written a compelling piece for the Associated Press entitled, Mental Health Treatment Hasn’t Lived Up To JFK’s Vision. In it, she reminds us of the state of mental health in the 1960’s, and the President’s vision for humanizing the treatment of the mentally ill. His vision was to treat patients in their “their own communities and then return them to “a useful place in society.” Progress has been made... if progress is defined as deinstitutionalization. Advances in medicine and the influence of the law have certainly helped those diagnosed with schizophrenia. In 1963, they would have had an average stay, Smith reminds us, of 11 years in a state institution. Nevertheless, the true goals of the law have not been realized and half of the centers envisioned have not been built. Smith continues,

Meanwhile, about 90 percent of beds have been cut at state hospitals, according to Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University psychiatry professor and expert in how the law affects the practice of medicine. In many cases, several mental health experts said, that has left nowhere for the sickest people to turn, so they end up homeless, abusing substances or in prison. The three largest mental health providers in the nation today are jails: Cook County in Illinois, Los Angeles County and Rikers Island in New York.

Did we envision that prisons would become the nation’s 21st century treatment centers for the mentally ill?

Students need school environments that teach how to process emotions and develop the vocabulary necessary for expression. That is within our reach. But while there may be more we can do to advance the interventions offered to our students who suffer with mental illness, we cannot accomplish great changes without the support of society at large. The legislation passed half a century ago was intended to make treatment and possible return to society a more effective and humanized experience for the mentally ill. Yet, recent shootings focus us on the failure to be societally successful in addressing the needs of those with mental illness. We have not developed the ability to draw the right lines between confidentiality and disclosure. Diagnosable mental illness still carries a stigma not associated with other illnesses. And the torture within the mind and within the emotions can be too easily hidden or dismissed or disciplined. We think of those who entered the schools and movie theaters and the Washington DC Navy Yard. Could their lives have ended differently if mental health were a national priority? If we can tug something positive from tragedy, maybe this will be it. Maybe Kennedy’s last gift is yet to come.

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