December 27, 2012

Issues behind shootinggo beyond mental health

Karen Mosher, Ph.D.,

In the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Kennebec Behavioral Health has received a number of calls asking what we can do about it. In reality, we are faced with the same sense of grief, outrage and helplessness that plagues the rest of our society.

From the perspective of risk management, community mental health has something to contribute to the discussion.

Calls have already arisen for an increased focus on mental illness. Calls have also arisen for more limitations on the freedom that people experiencing mental illness enjoy in our society.

The jump to target mental illness as a root cause in this tragedy is predictable, but premature and unfair as a generalization.

In reality, we don't yet know what pre-existing conditions, acute stressors, genetic predispositions or other factors might have set off this shooting. What we have are questions and speculations, guesses and ideas for simplistic solutions related to our suppositions. We have no data.

On the other hand, people who are national experts are investigating, compiling and analyzing everything they can access in an attempt to develop a clear and accurate picture of what happened and why.

We care for thousands of people diagnosed with mental illness. These are people who love their children and grandchildren. They strive endlessly to make meaningful contributions to our society. They are concerned about and look out for their friends. They are horrified, grieved and haunted by this carnage, no different than anyone who doesn't carry such a label.

The connections between mental illness and violence are not that strong. They are not predictive.

On the other hand, while we do not know how it does or doesn't relate to Sandy Hook, we do know that people who are willing to hurt other people to get their own way are more likely to be violent again. We also know that people who have no empathy for others are more likely to be willing to cause other people pain.

I would propose that while we wait for the experts to complete their investigation and analyze their findings, if we as a country, a state and a society feel the need to take action, let's look at supporting the development and testing of effective interventions for people who use violence against others and for people who lack empathy.

These are under-resourced, under-studied fields that represent a large percentage of the ongoing pain and distress suffered by adults and children who seek service but often cannot benefit from it because they are not safe in their homes.

Karen Mosher, Ph.D., is clinical director of Kennebec Behavioral Health, Augusta

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