Sandy Hook had an emergency plan. Do we?

The stories are heartbreaking. The media coverage of the Sandy Hook shootings as well as the response to Liza Long’s piece in The Blue Review, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” are profoundly unsettling. Parents of mentally ill children as well as concerned citizens find themselves in the midst of battles against severe mental illness while trying to minimize the collateral damage to families and innocent bystanders.

The courageous Sandy Hook schoolteachers, all trained in the school’s disaster plan, huddled their young students into closets, kilns or bathrooms while figuring out the best way to prepare for the madman’s massacre.

We know now that Adam Lanza forced his way into the school. Although the Sandy Hook school proudly displayed a permanent and weathered “Visitors Welcome,” sign, they were still careful. The first line of defense was a locked front door. A visitor had to be a known friend or someone with a good reason to come visit. Adam was neither. We don’t know what provoked this young man. We do know that 20 year old males with severe mental illness are unpredictable and there are too few resources to help them. Sandy Hook teachers had a plan. Do we? As communities and neighbors, what is our plan for dealing with the unthinkable?

College campuses are not strangers to this type of violence. In response to university versions of the Sandy Hook shootings, e.g. Virginia Tech, we made some progress, but more is needed. If we can identify what has worked where and why, then perhaps there are lessons that can be applied to other settings. How can a college campus, a microcosm of a larger community, prepare for this kind of catastrophe? If research indicates that violence erupts in an unpredictable manner, what are the limitations of our planning capabilities?

Long before serving as an academic administrator I worked as a social worker in out-patient and in-patient settings. The majority of my caseload consisted of out-of-control teenagers and struggling families. Now as a campus administrator, I continue to look for ways to maximize students’ potential for success, regardless of the personal challenges they bring to their higher education journey.

What we know is that mental illness must be addressed from multiple systems: the individual, the family, the community, and, at the broadest level, policy and statute.

Here is a quick checklist of a systemic analysis of the problem illustrated by Sandy Hook and Ms. Long’s story:

1. Mental illness has a physiological, neurological, or biological basis. Biology may not be destiny, but our genetics may predispose us for certain syndromes and diagnoses. No longer do mental health professionals blame bad mothering, or poor parenting as the sole determinant of out-of-control behavior. Mental illness is not a sign of personal weakness, or lapse in moral fortitude. Therefore, interventions should focus on getting treatment rather than doling out punishment or advice.

2. The genetic predisposition for severe mental illness may reside within the individual; however, help in the form of symptom control and stress reduction requires a group effort. Families and teachers need a network of support and solutions. Coping and healing are team efforts.

3. Our fear instinct requires attention. If a student’s behavior or demeanor triggers a fearful response, then let’s take that reaction seriously. Too often concerned family and friends, along with caring professionals, work to overcome their cautious reluctance to engage. Instead, we should pay attention to our gut reaction and seek help for the person who appears as a potential threat, as well as seeking help for ourselves.

4. Policies need to support an infrastructure of assistance. For example, insurance companies typically provide more coverage for physical illness than they do for mental health and substance abuse. Congress attempted to legislate mental health parity through the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996. However, that legislation did not include substance abuse, which is frequently a feature of severe mental illness. Furthermore, there are several loopholes that ultimately limit benefits to those in need. For example, families need respite care and schools need mental health professionals. During these lean economic times, these programs are less likely to be funded. It is difficult to justify the cost of prevention because it is impossible to measure what didn’t happen. Yet, in the long run, schools with social workers and other mental health professionals may be worth the investment.

At my university we cannot control who gets in our front door. Similar to our communities and most campuses, there is no fence. We have, however, developed ways to grow a community network or set of responses designed to keep troubled students and anxious community members safe.

For example, our CARE Team (Campus Assessment, Resource, and Education) serves as a one-stop shop for any member of the campus community to bring a concern about someone in need. This office reviews reports in an attempt to identify signs of potential threat as early as possible. The CARE Team also strives to “educate the campus community on by-stander intervention, bias incidents, crisis management, monitoring behavior, and threat assessment.”

This is a significant shift in how Student Affairs handles problem behavior. They are far less likely to begin disciplinary actions, and more likely to make a referral. Young adults with severe mental illness do not keep it a secret. Their distress is obvious to those around them. The CARE office also maintains a database of reports so that trends and patterns can be identified, and acted upon.

Families with sons or brothers with violent tendencies likely do not have a plan that addresses the individual as well as the prevailing context of their mental illness. Instead, families such as Liza Long’s fervently hope that their loved one will get better, that the latest meds will work and that a treatment will offer relief. As a last resort, if their loved one starts to unravel and act out, they hope that neither a gun nor a target is within easy reach. We need to do better. We need to develop a caring network that offers more.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Peter Wollheim

    Thanks to Dean Lavitt for bringing up these important points. However, I think that it’s important to note that the counseling staff at the BSU Wellness Center is understaffed by approximately 50%. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be much publicity regarding the CARE team directed towards us as instructors. BSU Housing policies appear to treat alcohol abuse among dorm residents with a tremendous amount of leniency if not permissiveness; students who are found intoxicated are only mandated two psychoeducational sessions.

    Listen closely to the campus NPR radio affiliate and count how many inaccurate, mocking or derogatory references are made to mental illness. Commentators often describe the behavior of phenomena such as the stock market or sports teams or even the weather as “crazy,” or “insane” or even “schizophrenic.” Even the beloved “Car Talk” guys poke fun at mental illness. Working with clients who live with severe and persistent mental illnesses, I can assure you that such language does inhibit people from coming forth for medication and psychotherapy. Consider campus advertising for “March Madness” or Halloween events featuring images of haunted mental asylums – it all contributes to an atmosphere of stigmatization to which vulnerable people are sensitive.

    Meta-studies of school and work place rampage shootings indicate some strong commonalities. First, the vast majority of these events are, at the end of the day, suicides. Secondly, the school shootings typically take place in communities where the local high school or college function as the social center of the town. Such communities also place great emphasis on competitive team sports such as football and on physical domination as a mark of manhood. The shooters are most often young white males whose older siblings – especially sisters – are perceived as far more accomplished academically and/or athletically than these individuals. Most of them come from religious families that initiated them into the use of firearms. And the great majority have either sought mental health treatment and been denied full services, or they are taking prescription anti-depressants and have not been warned of the dangers – including “psychotic rage” – of sudden withdrawal.

    So, Dean Lavitt is entirely correct in pointing out the multi-layered nature of the risk. The question the BSU campus now faces is to what extent we are willing to fund increased access to mental health services, and to what extent all of us are willing to create a cultural environment in which access to those services is supported rather than stigmatized.

    Peter Wollheim, Ph.D., C.C.W., M. Couns., L.P.C.

    • TS

      Thanks Dr. Wollheim. At Boise State last semester the university did much to publicize the C.A.R.E. program and it seems they have reorgnized it under a new dean of students. Whether or not that means more or better counseling, I can’t say. I can say, however, is becomeing routine for students to have vague disablity letters that dictate special treatment such as less reading, more time, and time away form class. Another change in the last year is heightened pressure toward automatic teaching–video capture, online testing and evaluation. One wonders it that trend is in response to mental health issues, and one wonders if lack of facetime and reliance on distance learning is make the situation better or worse. Sad that it takes a crises to have a conversation but good that you and the dean have weighed in.

  • Rick Antonio

    I work at a Mica homeless shelter and when i linked to the article about Adam Lanza’s mother, after reading it I placed it inside every staff members mailbox and requested they read the article and offer feedback.
    The unfortunate circumstances that teachers and children were faced with in the wake of Newton Conn. was horrific.
    When will we begin to assess the origins of mental illness and seek the proper care needed to treat individuals.
    I am all to familiar with the quick response of The Emergency Room assesment, which involved providing the necessary medication and 24 hour watch and then releasing the individual back into society.
    The quick fix.
    We never become familiar with trajedy until it enters our community, why wait until its too late and everyones response is “I would have never believed it would happen here.
    Guns are the problem which assist in carrying out this henious acts, althought those guns require a finger to pull the trigger.