Stopping the next school shooting means controlling the guns. But local communities also have a role to play

There was a time when a school shooting could shock our entire nation. Do you remember Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999? Today, 23 years later, 19 children under the age of 10 and two of their teachers have been mowed down at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Comparatively speaking, the nation collectively shrugged.

Today, mass shootings in American supermarkets, festivals, nightclubs and public transportation are commonplace. Amid a pandemic, war, and climate-related trauma, grief rivals grief. When it comes to school shootings, stopping them seems hopeless.

This is not the case. And not all solutions lie in the seemingly intractable gun control debate.

When I hear about children being shot at school, like everyone else, I get angry. This anger turns into blame. But I know finger pointing won’t solve this. It has certainly been tried.

Instead, we have to ask ourselves: can we really do anything constructive before the next angry young man – they are men in 95% of these incidents – picks up a gun?

As a psychotherapist working with children and adolescents, I have a close view of the range of mental health issues that young people struggle with: untreated depression, chronic stress and anxiety, social isolation, bullying, pressure from peers, anger at a person or group, difficulty concentrating or regulating emotions, poor conflict resolution skills, child abuse, inadequate mental health services. Even if the ever-present threat of gun violence were not lurking in the backdrop, we would need to do a better job of addressing these mental health needs.

So what can we do? To start, we need municipalities to act.

When it comes to preventing mass shootings, gun control matters. Protecting our children should guide state and federal legislation, not the money of powerful lobby groups like the National Rifle Association. But meeting the mental health needs, especially of our young people, is also important. And that’s something we all have at the local level.

Mental health education and programming must become a societal imperative, reaching children and their caregivers as well. And it must start in our schools.

A handful of documented cases tell us that when a parent has responded to a child’s warning signals, it can prevent a tragedy. In most school shootings, the parents of the perpetrator had intimate knowledge of the violent or disturbing behavior over a period of time, but did not intervene. For parents in my practice, I explain that everything that happens with a child’s behavior – from anxiety to suicidal thoughts – cannot be separated from the family system. Relationship dynamics, family stressors, adult mental health, life transitions influence all children.

But many families do not seek help from a therapist. Educating parents about children’s mental health, the warning signs of developing mental health problems, and providing tools for intervention should be an integral part of the school culture. Back-to-school parties, Parent Teacher Association meetings, school councils and parent-teacher conferences can be used to discuss with parents how to address any concerns they may have about their children’s mental health, as well as connecting them to support systems such as counselling, peer and social support groups.

Students should learn about and talk about mental health at school, to empower them, reduce stigma and shame, and encourage them to seek help. Speakers, assemblies, integrated school program and/or special programming or clubs are some options. Schools should speak directly to students about stress and anger management, abusive relationships, bullying, suicide, self-esteem, body image, healthy communication and communication skills. adaptation – before tragedy strikes.

Permissive parenting – the unwillingness or inability to impose limits on children – becomes dangerous when a gun is in the house. We need policies requiring anyone who buys a gun and lives in a household with children to attend a mandatory gun safety course that includes a mental health and youth component.

What is happening in schools in the United States today is extremely disturbing and unacceptable. The ripple effect of trauma is broad, its legacy lasting. All over the country, children are hearing about the latest tragedy, and for days, weeks, months, even years later, many feel unsafe in their own schools. Every time another shooting occurs, the children are re-traumatized. I know this because they show up in my therapy office and tell me they look suspiciously at their peers, ask their parents if they can stay home, and feel anxious in classrooms. Forget learning.

When the country’s adult population fails to put measures in place to protect children, children suffer in different ways. The same hallways and classrooms where children prepare for adulthood are where they rightly fear for their lives – because real adults have done next to nothing, from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Parkland and Uvalde and whatever the next school shooting is.

Enough is enough. We all have a role to play in ensuring that preventable tragedies like this never happen again.

Ariella Cook-Shonkoff is a licensed child therapist and art therapist based in Berkeley.

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