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The Newtown Tragedy and the Stigma of Mental Illness

I am hoping we will direct our energies to looking at how well we are meeting the needs of the individuals in our community.

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, and 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

President and CEO

Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut

 

For further information please contact Sherry Perlstein

During business hours 203 517-3319

After hours 203 940-5872

Sherry.Perlstein@childguidancect.org

colleen intrieri January 22, 2013 at 11:51 AM
How sad that so many students are in so much pain that suicide seems like a solution. We treat those with physical illness with kindness and compassion, as well as medicine and therapy. It would be great if we could approach mental health the same way we approach physical health.
Jim Eastwood January 22, 2013 at 11:59 AM
Collen Great Comment !!! But how about the First Resonders ????? What we need to do to each other is practice "26 Acts of Kindness" that is what a Newtown resident suggested right after the Incident. The Kids are going to have a rough time and we need to support them, but we also need to be just a little "Nicer" to each other!!!!! Thanks again Collen !!!!! and may you have a wonderful day !!!
effinrayjay January 22, 2013 at 02:25 PM
Like many others, I have compassion for those with mental or physical illness, but it seems that the issue here is less about stigmatizing the patient than assuring that those who insist on their second amendment rights are responsible. No one wants to see a gun in the hand of a person who wants to harm himself, especially since recent history shows that sometimes it means harming other innocent people first.
Liz C. January 22, 2013 at 05:44 PM
The shooter in Newtown was an adult with mental illness with access to an arsenal which was obtained legally..we can improve security and limit the types of weapons and ammunition made available, but attention and resources are what is needed to de-stigmatize what is essentially an illness of the brain so that there is less suffering, more understanding and ultimately more resources made available to all who need help with life's challenges.

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