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Miriam Novogrodsky Headshot

Schools, Students and Guns

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In Chardon, Ohio, T.J. Lane killed three classmates and injured two others on Feb. 27, 2012. I am always, and I'm sure I'm not alone, left wondering what provoked a child to take the steps to acquire a weapon and go berserk.

A child doesn't wake up one day,  and out of the blue decide it's a lovely day to go killing. They arrive there after a series of life insults to their psyches amounting to enough pain to find a weapon. What insults? Normal every day stuff -- family changes, or lack of change to a situation that needs changing, peer rejection or crappy grades. There isn't a clear trajectory from one event to picking up arms. Instead, there is the baffling painful, joyful and conflicted process called 'growing up.'

Counseling departments in schools can do psychosocial-education like bullying, gay/lesbian student alliances, signs and symptoms of depression, suicidality and sexual harassment. These are broad campaigns that do not end, campaigns with posters that decorate counseling offices and hallways. But counseling departments can also provide good old fashioned adult/child interaction. A place for kids to be heard. But when budgets get cut, school counselors and social workers go, music directors go, and art teachers go. But let's dream. When counseling departments are funded, they can work miracles. Just like the arts give children a place to express themselves, so can a guidance department.

My favorite place to work as a therapist was in schools. Schools are where you see children's vulnerabilities and coping strengths. Schools are where children stand separate from their families of origin. They bring their family baggage. But they are in school without their primary caregivers to interpret and clutter their world. Support for children and the enormous developmental task called growing up, can be provided seamlessly when available in schools. Making time in busy lives to take a child to speak with a counselor or participate in a social group is difficult. But when offered in school, a kid can amble down to a guidance office and process their life over lunch. Doesn't get more organic to a child's life than that -- AND no parent/nanny/grandparent driving a pissed-off kid to the counselor's office in rush hour required. And better yet, all children can get served. Not just families that have health insurance, or legal citizenship, or know how to find a counselor -- in a school, all kids, in the dream scenario, would have time when they are the center of the universe. A place where their problems/questions/worries and delights reign supreme and matter.

Statistics from an article written by Susan Wilde Schwartz in NCCP (National Center for Children in Poverty) support the need for school-based mental health services -- and the potential for lowering the number of gun-wielding students:

Adolescence is a critical period for mental, social and emotional wellbeing and development. During adolescence, the brain undergoes significant developmental changes, establishing neural pathways and behavior patterns that will last into adulthood...

These and other factors underline the importance of meeting the mental, social, and emotional health needs of this age group...

Approximately 20% of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Many mental health disorders appear for the first time in adolescence...

20% and 30% of adolescents have one major depressive episode before adulthood...

Existing mental health problems become increasingly complex and intense as children transition into adolescence.

An estimated 67% to 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder.

Basically, as long as we don't value the mental well-being of our collective children, and heck, our adults who are the parents (that's us), we will see more sad, confused and murderous T.J. Lanes. We might be lagging behind in math and science but we're also behind in human relationships, to self and others. For all the connectedness we've spawned, we are sorely out of touch.