There's a pervasive negative perception of mental health in our country that operates on a sliding scale. It begins with meditation and stress management, which are seen as tools of the new age-y, slightly soft but loveable kooks. It ends with the looked down upon, disgraceful, and potential dangerous crazies who spend their lives seeking treatment -- or, as my mother calls them, people we just don't talk about.
This is a stupid, backwards, ridiculous way of thinking at best. At worst, it's deadly.
Imagine this: instead of bonuses for gun-toting teachers, that money is used to make mental-health checks mandatory. In schools, there are people making sure your kids are okay and that they have help for the things they struggle with. They are taught coping skills that will grow them into happier adults. They learn to manage stress, problem solve through emotional times, to recognize their limits and resources for the moments when they're past their limits. Aren't these the skills most parents want their kids to have?
But more than that, mental health in schools can identify kids who are in the kind of dark place that leads to tragedies like the Parkland shooting.
Our efforts to curb school shootings all revolve around the idea that an angry kid with a gun is an inevitability. We look into strategies like arming teachers, installing metal detectors, and generally turning schools into prisons. Schools are no longer a place of education and nurturing; they are a state of fear and anxiety. They are a breeding ground for mental illness.
Without the stigma of mental illness, we can teach kids to be more aware of their own feelings. They can learn to identify and use their feelings (alongside other skills like art, writing, or athletics). Instead of elementary kids running active-shooter drills, we can teach them mindfulness skills. Instead of teaching them a classmate with a gun can end their lives at any moment, we can give them a skill to cope with feelings of frustration, anger, fear.
I'm close with a friend's daughter. Like me, she lives with her cell phone in hand. She called me one morning because her school was in lockdown, no one knew anything, and she couldn't reach her dad. It turned out the school locked down because a police officer pulled over a man, who stopped in the school's parking lot, and lawfully informed the officer he had a gun in his glove compartment. Nothing here is out of the ordinary, or dangerous. And yet, she called me sobbing, terrified she was going to die. She is 13 years old.
That's not okay.We live in a country where we argue loudly and passionately about citizen rights. That's a good thing. No matter which side of the argument you're on, gun rights are about safety. Safety is paramount, and worth fighting for. Guns in school, in homes, in public places -- there's no easy answer. Without being able to fix gun laws, without being able to protect ourselves in a way that is universally accepted, the only other thing we can do is prevent the kind of misuse that leads sites like The Onion to publish the most relevant article in the history of their satirical site -- an article repurposed over and over again, tailored to every new mass shooting.
How do we do that? How is this seemingly impossible task even begun?
For starters, we stop being willfully ignorant about mental health. Shaming people for getting help is what creates stigmas around the things that lead to violence, and solves absolutely nothing. Psychology Today suggests a media campaign to counteract stigma, while the National Alliance on Mental Illness offers up everyday behaviors that can change the perception of mental illness in your community, home, or social circle. These behaviors include openly discussing mental health, educating yourself and others, encouraging equality between physical and mental illness, and showing compassion. The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration advises (SAMHSA) advocates utilizing words and language that reduce stigma (reducing sensational or fear-based language, examining the type of information you disseminate, and avoiding language or phrasing that succumbs to moral judgement or panic).
Mental health isn't an issue for the weak, the indelicate, the outcasts or immoral. It's something that affects 25 percent of the population, which is not that much lower than cancer. This makes mental health a human issue. It means many people you know are affected. It means children are affected, as are the middle-aged and the elderly. It means that people who shrug at shooters and say, "Oh, he's just crazy!" are a part of the problem.
It means there's more we can do. It means there's more we should do. And if people want to keep their guns, it's the only thing we can do.