Oscar Wright is the CEO of United Advocates for Children and Families, a California nonprofit based in Sacramento that provides support to parents, families, children and youth experiencing mental health challenges. Visit UACF at www.uacf4hope.org.

Viewpoints: Shooters have mental health issues that need 'first aid'

Published: Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012 - 8:44 am

If it takes a community to raise a child, it may also take a community to save one. In the wake of the Connecticut elementary school shooting, I'm reminded of the saying, "Tears are the silent language of grief." Despite our differences, we mourn in the same language. Now, we must act with common resolve not to be defined by indescribable tragedy but transformed by it.

Mass murder should not become the new political discourse for endless partisan debate but recognized as a confluence of public health issues: gun control, mental illness and needed resources.

Gun control is simply one facet of the problem. One facet of the solution is social capital; the connections we have to one another, our ability to seek and receive support from others. It's this social capital that could very well be the most important weapon we have against preventing rampaging violence in our schools.

First, let's dispel some myths about mental illness with facts:

• Most people who are violent do not have a mental disorder, and most people with a mental disorder are not violent.

• People with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violent attacks than the general population.

• Mental illness is not the result of bad parenting. Most experts agree that a genetic susceptibility combined with other risk factors leads to a psychiatric disorder. In other words, mental illnesses have a physical cause.

Inaccurate beliefs about mental illness lead to stigma, discrimination and no treatment.

Next, is it possible to develop a profile of young school shooters?

A study commissioned by Congress in 2001 on school shootings in the 1990s compared traits of eight school shooters:

• All were boys.

• Five had a relatively recent drop in their grades at school.

• Five had engaged in previous serious delinquent acts, and the other three in minor delinquent behavior.

• Serious mental health problems surfaced after the shootings for six of the eight boys in these cases.

• All had easy access to guns.

• The rural and suburban boys had experience with guns, and one of the urban teens appears to have practiced with the gun he used.

What about protective factors that lessen risks in families, children and youth?

• Half of the shooters came from intact and stable two-parent families.

• Five of the eight were good students, at least until the eighth grade.

• Three of the shooters struggled with grades or experienced the early school failure that frequently precedes the development of serious delinquent behavior.

• One of the eight shooters was a loner.

• Two were gang members.

• Most had friends, although the quality of the friendships differed.

• Most of these shooters were not considered to be at high risk for this kind of behavior by the adults around them.

Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We need a "one-size-fits-one" approach. Just when you think a descriptive profile of a shooter fits the mold, another assailant beneath the radar surfaces and confounds our presumptive theories. If a mental health emergency were to occur, would a teacher, parent, police or pastor's congregation have the knowledge to provide support, the social capital required?

Many Americans are trained in first aid and CPR to respond to medical emergencies but few are prepared to help others experiencing a mental health crisis. A popular course that renders such training is "mental health first aid."

The idea behind mental health first aid is no different than that of traditional first aid: to create an environment where people know how to help someone in emergency situations. But instead of learning how to give CPR or treat a broken bone, the course teaches people how to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health problems and how to provide initial aid before guiding a person toward appropriate professional help.

A wise man once said, "Everyone hears what you say. Friends listen to what you say. Best friends listen to what you don't say." Mental health first aid is a great social capital tool.

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