There are a lot of alarming trends in these recent tragedies. One that is often overlooked is that the shooters in Aurora, Oregon, Newtown, and many other past atrocities are all college-aged. That fact begs the question, what kind of mental illness and or mental health education is being taught in schools and at universities?
Dr. Harold Koplewicz, President of the Child Mind Institute, recently mentioned the first signs of 75 percent of all mental disorders occur by age 24. The human brain starts to develop before birth and fully matures between the ages of 22-24. The coping mechanisms that develop during that time frame and the decisions that are made have consequences that last a lifetime for individuals and now all of society. Unfortunately, close to two-thirds of people who need help during that time period don't get it.
When it comes to responding to public health crises, we seem to wait until the worst happens, and then we react. Even in the few cases where one of these shooters was on someone's radar of needing help, communities were stuck talking about the warning signs they saw as families try to piece their lives back together after the worst case scenario.
Early intervention is a must when dealing with these issues. A large majority of schools and colleges don't have any mental health education. The only time a student hears about his or her brain is when the pituitary gland is randomly mentioned as a part of puberty during sex-ed. Students of all ages today are dealing with inestimable amounts of stress and pressure, which leads to lack of sleep, substance abuse and myriad of other mental health issues.
When I was in K-12 schools from the mid 1980s to mid 1990s we had a lot of programs telling us not to drink, not to use drugs, not to drive drunk, not to take our own lives and not to have sex. But no one ever came into my school to educate us about mental illnesses, development of the brain, our emotions or tell us it was OK to seek help. Unfortunately, that is still the case today.
When I was Director of Outreach for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign, I had the opportunity to see the results of comprehensive mental health school programs. In schools that offered parent presentations, faculty/staff educational forums, large-scale assemblies for students, teacher lesson plans and informational brochures, the results were overwhelming. More students learned that help was available and the increase in students seeking assistance skyrocketed. Communication between parents and their children flourished in new ways. Kids learned important intervention steps to help their friends. By bringing these issues into the light less people were helpless in the dark.
Colleges that focus on mental health education during freshman orientation and are backed by student groups from Active Minds also have major success. Active Minds is the largest peer-to-peer mental health advocacy group on college campuses. When mental health is a focus at orientation it reaches an entire incoming class with the same supportive message. Students seek help and guidance at a higher rate during their difficult transition, which sets them up for a more productive four years. Having that information during such a critical adjustment makes a major difference.
There have been wide scale efforts to educate students and families on other public health crises. It is now time to create effective programs to help young people and everyone involved in their lives learn about mental health.
While there is no single fix to the issues we face today, wide-ranging mental health education is a necessary ingredient to prevent future tragedies and respond to emergencies. We need to normalize mental health instead of isolate mental illness. By educating young people on the development of their brains, the realities of mental illnesses and what to do when we see someone suffering we can open an environment for people to express themselves and get the help they need.
The age range of these shooters is one of the most crucial time periods for development. Hopefully, by beginning education early we won't have as many unanswerable questions later in their lives.