One month after the catastrophic loss of life in Newtown, I watch with apprehension as media attention shifts from universal compassion to polarizing politics and blame.
While we continue to struggle to comprehend violence and loss of this magnitude, as a mental health professional I am hoping we will direct our energies to looking at how well we are meeting the needs of the individuals in our community who suffer in isolation from mental illness and traumatic life circumstances.
I'm also hoping that we commit to working together to increase access to effective, comprehensive mental health diagnostic and treatment services.
Unfortunately, a great deal of the discourse surrounding this tragedy feeds the stigma of mental illness and furthers the misconception that people who struggle with mental illness, or those who seek mental health treatment, are to be feared.
This has the unfortunate consequence of increasing community risk and individual suffering, as those in need become reluctant to seek professional mental health services.
The National Alliance for Mental Health’s former Director, Thomas Insel, noted “Most people with serious mental illness are not violent, and most violent acts are not committed by people with serious mental illness.
The most common form of violence associated with mental illness is not against others, but rather, against oneself.” Nationally, one in five children has a diagnosable mental disorder.
According to the 2011 Connecticut School Health Survey, 25% of students reported being depressed during the past year, and nearly 7% reported having attempted suicide.
Last year, of the more than 2,000 local children referred to the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut, over 485 had attempted or threatened suicide; 333 were the victims of abuse or neglect, and 214 were bullied.
Mental health is interconnected with all aspects of a child’s well-being, healthy functioning and development. When children who are struggling do not get needed mental health care, physical health is threatened, learning is compromised, family life may be shattered and childhood is derailed.
Repeated exposure to violence, difficult life circumstances, loss of a parent or other person significant in a child’s life intensifies emotional suffering.
Together these challenges can lead to difficulties in peer relationships and increase isolation and hopelessness, eroding a youngster’s ability to tolerate frustration and to manage angry feelings.
Fortunately, with effective mental health intervention and treatment, risks are reduced and youngsters are far less likely to engage in self destructive or violent behavior and far more likely to become engaged, productive members of society.
As we try to learn from Sandy Hook, it is crucial that we focus on the importance of early identification and prevention as part of the solution.
Despite limited resources, as a community, we continue to make progress as public and private agencies, health and mental health professionals, schools, police, and child protective services staff increasingly work in collaboration in our community.
In the days following the tragedy at Sandy Hook, members of the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut’s crisis team, joined mental health professionals from across the state in a coordinated effort to provide help in Newtown.
In Connecticut the Department of Children and Families, in collaboration with community partners, has made great strides in improving access for children and teens to community based professional mental health services.
In an emergency, anywhere in the state, you can dial 211 to be connected to a local Emergency Mobile Psychiatric Services team.
The Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut provides this vital service in Stamford, Greenwich, Darien and New Canaan. But, please do not wait until it is an emergency to seek help.
If you are concerned that your child is troubled, unhappy or anxious, or if you are interested in learning more about professional mental health services, please call the Child Guidance Center at (203) 324-6127.
Sherry Perlstein, MSW, is president and CEO of Stamford-based Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut
For further information please contact her during business hours at (203) 517-3319 or, after hours, at (203) 940-5872 or by emailing her at Sherry.Perlstein@childguidancect.org