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Preventing the next school tragedy with programs to combat mental health issues

As schools grapple with social media threats and the nation marks the 9th anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, U.S. lawmakers and medical experts are seeking solutions to mental health issues nationwide.
Published: Jan. 3, 2022 at 9:13 AM CST
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Multiple school district leaders nationwide hope 2022 will not usher in a new wave of violent social media threats as some U.S. lawmakers and medical experts seek to address mental health issues amongst children in the new year.

As recently as Dec. 17, threats of violence at schools forced the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to issue a Twitter message to calm reports nationwide over potential attacks. The tweet came just three days after the country remembered the 20 children and six adults killed nine years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“I would say mental health issues were already a pandemic, if you look at the definition of a pandemic,” said Scarlett Lewis, mother of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, who lost his life at Sandy Hook.

Lewis is focused on providing mental health support for children through her Choose Love movement, which aids schools with programs to address character development.

“You do that by implementing comprehensive social and emotional learning programs. These are essential life skills,” Lewis said.

The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) reports one in six U.S. youth, ages 6-17, experience a mental health disorder every year. NAMI claims half of those conditions start by age 14 with behavior problems, anxiety, and depression among the issues most commonly diagnosed. NAMI added only around half of students with mental health conditions actually received treatment in the past year.

“Go to the pediatrician as the first place to start in order to get [kids] that mental health care that they need,” said Dr. Christine Crawford, associate medical director for NAMI, who urged parents to watch for signs that their child is irritable or withdrawn.

“Talk to your child about what’s going on, instead of just assuming that it’s normal teenage behavior or normal young people behavior,” she said.

NAMI said undiagnosed and untreated mental health conditions can interfere with a student’s ability to learn, grow and develop. Crawford emphasized school districts are key in providing early identification and prevention as the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges for children who may feel isolated or anxious.

“They may be aware of the fact that they’re falling behind, that they’re not up to speed with the rest of their peers. And, young people don’t want to feel different from their peers, and that can bring on a lot of difficult emotions,” she said as she claimed acting out can be indicative of the stress children are experiencing. She urged school leaders to consider implementing mental health days to aid students in the future.

“We already have sick days in place for young people that are experiencing headaches and stomach aches, and if you’re experiencing a physical illness, it’s going to be hard to focus on your education and to focus on learning,” she said. “The same is true if you are experiencing significant mental health concerns.”

Crawford said incidents of suicide attempts or thoughts of suicide are on the rise as well feelings of anxiety and depression. She acknowledged students who face mental health conditions may also turn to social media to work through their emotions, sometimes in unhealthy ways.

“Connecting to social media is a way to make them not feel alone and those feelings, those emotions, make them feel less isolated,” she said as she added social media can also expose children to material that may impact their mood or make them susceptible to peer pressure.

“They may exhibit the same behaviors in terms of reposting that content that’s further kind of perpetuating these threats that we’re hearing about on social media that are playing out in the school environment,” she said.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) is among the lawmakers focused on the issue of addressing mental health and violence. In December, Murphy visited a school in Bridgeport, Conn. to discuss the recent challenges districts face in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In 2022, he plans legislation to reform mental health. Following the recently deadly Oxford High School shooting in Michigan, he also joined other lawmakers (Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.)) in a letter to urge the U.S. Department of Education to raise awareness about secure gun storage.

For Lewis, she said schools need to shift their focus from reaction to prevention in order to avoid mental health issues in children and any further school tragedies. She believes, programs to address these issues may have helped the Sandy Hook shooter.

“If he had been able to receive nurturing, healing, love, then the tragedy would have never happened,” she said.

For parents, she suggests they be present for their children by shutting down their phones and turning off their screens to have a conversation. She reminded parents as well that children model their behavior.

“I got up at Jesse’s funeral, and I asked everybody to start doing that. I said that it was an angry thought that started the whole tragedy,” she said. “No child wakes up in the morning and decides that they’re going to perpetrate a mass murder.”

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