Once again innocent children are dead – this time in Florida. And once again a tragedy arouses intense emotion throughout the country.
Will the violence ever stop?
Granted, guns are everywhere in America and relatively easy to obtain. But where’s the common sense within the Second Amendment? Fact is an 18-year-old Florida teen – who was known to be mentally unstable and violent – legally purchased an AR-15.
For over a year, numerous people saw it in his possession. Then he used it to kill.
Whereas a semi-automatic rifle has become the chosen tool of destruction, let me be clear. It’s not the systematic cause of this complex problem. That lies with severe mental health conditions. The names Seung-Hui Choi and Adam Lanza are stark reminders. Now joined by Nikolas Cruz.
Loners. Social misfits. Deeply troubled.
And they are part of a massive subgroup. Hundreds of others teens – perhaps thousands – are consumed with negative thoughts that border on paranoia. Nearly all struggle socially. Most are bullied. Many become violent. Some mimic destructive behaviors. A few have thoughts or plans to kill.
Yet a few is one too many.
Someone’s child could be the next mass shooter.
Whether diagnosed with a specific Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED) or not, a majority of troubled teens are not receiving regular psychiatric care or ongoing mental health treatment.
With no coordinated paper trail.
Although fragmented records exist at schools, law enforcement agencies, juvenile courts and medical/mental health providers, information sharing is not routine. For years an individual can fly under the radar. If and when a heinous crime occurs, everyone reacts – demanding answers.
Many people asleep at the wheel. Now pointing fingers.
At the same time, don’t rush to judgment and assume. A specific mental health label doesn’t automatically foreshadow violence. Not every person with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Autism, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Major Depression is bent on killing. Not even close.
But a diagnosis can be a critical piece of the puzzle. It can lead to appropriate mental health treatment. Access to care is one thing. Accessing high-quality treatment is another thing altogether – and the right approach is what matters most.
Nor does one size fit all. “Talk” doesn’t equate to client improvement. In fact, well-meaning but misinformed professionals can do significant harm – by taking a teen’s word at face value without necessary reflection and thereby undermining adult authority in the process. This common scenario is called triangulation – and it quickly erodes parental effectiveness while emboldening the teen.
A misguided sense of power is put into play. I have absolute control. I am untouchable. I am always right. Everyone else is wrong.
I just described my oldest son who worked the system for a decade. Now an adult in prison.
What about treatment effectiveness? Many parents share stories of “cookie cutter” treatment experiences that produced little to no change in teen behavior. Only loads of frustration. Instead of stepping “outside the box” and trying different approaches, providers push forward with more of the same.
Tight budgets can hinder decision making. Indifference, however, is the force that pounds another nail into the coffin.
In too many cases with habitual juvenile offenders, parents are then blamed for being uncooperative – when they reached out for mental health help in the first place.
What about psychotropic medication? Although the right mix of meds can help, the pills don’t “fix” organic brain damage – which is the root of mental illness. They also must be taken daily. In addition, evidence-based practices can improve daily functioning and outcomes. But they are not readily available to all.
And someone has to pay – and more often than not, private or public health insurance doesn’t cover the treatments that promise to do the most good.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a great example among many. Although highly effective in dealing with past trauma (which can short-circuit the brain’s ability to function under stress), most providers are strictly private pay – as I know from experience with one of my children.
Add in the IQ factor. For troubled teens not considered mildly impaired (IQ below 70), they are repeatedly told to stop negative behaviors – with minimal regard to the brain disorder. All require and deserve intensive treatment.
What about school suspensions or expulsions? No doubt, a handful of students bring daily challenges to the classroom. Their threats are real. But shunning troubled teens and leaving them unsupervised for days or weeks at a time while parents work doesn’t serve anyone. Moreover, misery loves company. It invites further trouble.
And a dangerous precedent is set. No one wants me around. No one cares. My life doesn’t matter. Why should anyone else’s?
Where are the meaningful alternatives to suspensions – rather than a dumping ground off school property? Connections that lead to dynamic adult-teen relationships. Mental illness won’t disappear on its own.
What about police calls? In the case of Nikolas Cruz, his mother placed 30+ calls to 911 over a six-year period. She certainly wasn’t hiding his actions – which often is the case with overwhelmed parents on the front lines. She clearly didn’t create his mental health problems. And for over a decade, she continually stood by her difficult-to-raise son and simply wanted additional supports for him – and for her. Police reports repeatedly described his altered thinking and fixation on guns.
Easy to judge a struggling parent without knowing the facts.
That’s where protocol must change. If disturbing anti-social behavior continues for a designated period of time (say one year), the individual should be entered in a federal database for future monitoring – with the right to rescind after proof of treatment and stabilization.
Most importantly, that designation should enable parents to immediately access high-end, expensive treatment. Although juvenile court judges can order mental health services for an adjudicated minor, those services often are too little too late.
Furthermore, placing “delinquent” teens with SED in a highly-authoritarian residential facility with like-minded individuals – without meaningful, targeted treatment – reinforces their maladaptive behaviors. The setting also engrains newfound bad habits – perhaps more disturbing. Upon release, the teen returns to the family without significant improvement.
Angrier than ever at the world.
Without question, innovation must be a part of the solution. A reputable agency in Indiana has long advocated for placing the most troubled youth in high quality therapeutic homes within the community – close to family and near present schools. Complete with small, stable environments, well-trained caregivers, active mentors, appropriate role models and age-appropriate out-of-school activities to breed a sense of personal success – something that many troubled teens have never experienced.
Sadly, no one wants to pay this expense for highly individualized care.
A small price to prevent human tragedy. Far cheaper than the bill for life in prison.
The time to act is now. “Yes” to reasonable gun control for mentally-ill individuals. And an even greater “yes” to appropriate mental health treatment for those needing it the most.
No one’s child needs to be the next mass shooter. DCP
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