Mental Health America of Greater Houston's Response to the Sandy Hook School Shooting

Mental Health America of Greater Houston is deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and joins the nation in mourning. We know there will be difficult days ahead for survivors and their families, and our thoughts and prayers are with them and all who are affected. 

When tragedy strikes, a common thought resonates about what could have been done to prevent it in the first place.  While much remains unknown about this incident, it is imperative that we come together as families, as communities and as a nation to prevent another unthinkable tragedy.   As a country, we all should be prepared to care for each other’s public health and safety.  Accomplishing this is possible. People must generally learn to identify warning signs of someone who is experiencing emotional distress or who may be dealing with a mental health concern and is in crisis.  They must also have the confidence to respond when they are aware of an issue and the knowledge of how and where to refer a person whose actions or behaviors could pose a potential threat or prove harmful to the person, another person or the public. Nationwide, mental health advocacy organizations are continually training educators, young people and others using best practices and proven prevention and intervention strategies to deter tragedy and to ultimately save lives.

The stigma of mental illness and the perception that people with mental illnesses are dangerous is a myth that must be dispelled.  People with mental illnesses are seldom the perpetrators of violence, and in many cases they are the recipients of violence. However, when there is a tragedy of this kind, people with mental illnesses are unfairly portrayed as dangerous. People with mental illnesses share the nation's grief and sorrow at times like these, but they are also on the receiving end of stereotypes and discrimination because of inaccurate perceptions. Their fear of persecution or judgment can create isolation, hinder them from seeking help, and perpetuate a serious health problem placing them at risk of adverse outcomes that most likely would not occur if they received treatment. Individuals living with brain and behavior disorders most likely will not commit an act of violence, but they are still in need of help. Their families also need support. 

Stigma is a major factor for some people choosing to get help for a mental illness. Cancer and HIV/AIDS are both serious medical conditions that were so taboo that they were not publicly discussed or acknowledged. Now people display pink ribbons for breast cancer and red ribbons for HIV/AIDS, tell their stories, share resources and offer hope to individuals living with these illnesses, to their families and others who care for them. This is a cultural change in attitudes that significantly progressed over the last 30 years.  This happened in our lifetime and with the same type of education, understanding and rallying, the perception of mental illness—a serious medical condition that often occurs with other health problems—can also change and help improve the wellness of people and communities.  

It is critical that access to mental health services becomes a priority for our nation and state. When considering publicly funded treatment services, we need to acknowledge that community mental health budgets throughout the U.S. have been cut, deeply reducing the mental health system's ability to provide community mental health services to people who need them. As we enter into the 83rd Texas Legislative Session, state legislators and citizens need to seriously consider the reasons and consequences of being 49th, nearly last in the nation, when it comes to prioritizing funding and delivering an adequate amount of mental health services in the public mental health system. 

Gaining access to private mental health services is also problematic due to barriers such as the cost of treatment, required upfront cash payments for services, insurance providers haggling over reimbursement rates, and the shortage of mental health professionals.  These and other issues affect a person’s access to timely and appropriate treatment.

In a pre-legislative forum recently convened by Mental Health America of Greater Houston, NAMI Metropolitan Houston, the Coalition of Behavioral Health Services, and the Behavioral Hospital of Bellaire, mental health and substance abuse advocates learned from state officials about legislative initiatives that can address these and other critical issues.

Children and youth with behavioral health issues may experience many struggles during childhood and adolescence.   Early intervention is critical to addressing these issues, as it can prevent mental health problems from compounding and poor life outcomes from accumulating. Because children and adolescents spend the majority of their waking hours at school, schools are the ideal setting to recognize and initiate services to address these behavioral health issues.

The School Behavioral Health Initiative at Mental Health America of Greater Houston has convened school district personnel, behavioral health providers and advocates, education-related and child-serving agencies, parents and other stakeholders to develop recommendations to improve the prevention, identification and treatment of behavioral health issues among students. Stakeholders, including ten Harris County school districts, representing over half a million public school students in Harris County are participating in the initiative.  We know this is important and we want to support children, families and schools in an effort to provide a level of behavioral health and academic achievement that is optimal for every child. 

Behavioral health issues are complex issues that require a systems approach involving mental health, education, law enforcement, gun rights and gun control advocates, and others.  Everyone needs to come to the table committed to working together to build consensus and create recommendations that will create the change that is needed.  The costs of not doing so are too high. 

We are called to honor the lives of those lost in the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary by fixing the problems that contributed to the onslaught of violence that has occurred with shocking frequency in communities throughout this country.  We simply must take greater measures to ensure that people of every age are able to receive appropriate treatment and care when they need it.

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