(Editor’s note: On December 14, 20 elementary school students and six school teachers and administrators were shot and killed by a troubled young man, Adam Lanza, who also killed his mother and himself.)
Now is the time for the substance use and mental health community to act together to help end the violence and self-mutilation we as a nation encourage. The victims, their families and all of our children and communities must be comforted. Substance use and mental health clinicians are often at the forefront helping in the aftermath of these too frequent massacres.
We can resolve to change this social environment of destruction. Below is a letter from the behavioral health community to President Obama, congressional leadership, members of Congress and state government officials. Will you sign on? Will you send this or your own letter to your member of Congress, governor or state legislator? Will you help recruit others — people in recovery, families caring for a loved one struggling with substance use or mental illness, counselors and leaders of behavioral health programs — to send letters and call their congressional delegations, governors and state legislators?
As people touched by the tragedies in Connecticut, Arizona, Colorado and too many other communities, as people who are touched by the destruction of untreated alcohol, drug and mental health problems, we must act together to end these killings.
We must all be part of the solution — by showing the faces, voices and resolve of people affected by mental illness and addiction to end this violence and repair our communities. Mental health and substance use are not the causes of the violence, but we can help with solutions.
Dear Mr. President, Mr. Speaker and Members of Congress:
As people who have direct, lived experience with mental illness and addiction, as family members caring for our loved ones with these illnesses, as counselors and healthcare workers and as leaders of behavioral health programs, we all call on you, the leaders of our nation, to begin with us a road to recovery from these tragedies. We grieve for the innocents murdered in Newtown. These are our children, our neighbors, our families, our friends. There can be no greater tragedy in a society than losing its young, its own future, so needlessly and so senselessly. Such actions strike at the very heart of who we are and who we hope to become.
So we must grieve. We grieve for the families who lost their children, for the families of their teachers who were killed, for the entire Newtown community and for America itself. Yet, we owe them all much, much more than just our tears. They also deserve our action to identify and implement solutions.
To begin our recovery, we recommend that you provide federal assistance to:
- Immediately double the capacity of public mental health and substance abuse programs. Funding for community mental health and substance use treatment services has been cut dramatically. As a result, only a third of those with moderate mental illness and two-thirds of those with severe illness ever receive any care. Families simply cannot get badly needed care. The Affordable Care Act must be implemented fully, and mental health and substance use care must be fully integrated into good medical care.
- Immediately implement school- and community-based programs to promote mental health, to prevent mental illness and substance abuse and to provide early interventions for those exhibiting these conditions. Prevention and early intervention strategies can strengthen children’s mental health and resiliency, prevent or lessen the burden of illness and help them and their families to recover from trauma. Further, teachers must be taught how to identify troubled children and to guide them into effective supports before these children get into trouble.
- Immediately begin teaching students at all levels to recognize the signs of mental illness and addiction, and to seek help when needed. Few young people get even a single hour of education about mental illness or addiction, its signs or its treatment. We can’t expect people to step forward or to seek help for a family member when we don’t even provide them the rudimentary tools to do so. We must begin to do so.
- Immediately ban assault rifles and large-capacity clips. Possession of these weapons is a fundamental public health problem. They are designed for the battlefield, not our closets. They are used to kill people senselessly and needlessly. In Newtown, an assault weapon was used to kill 20 young children just starting their lives and six of their heroic teachers. Enough!
Yes, we must grieve for the innocents, just as we grieved recently for those lost in Tucson, Aurora and Portland. But this time, our grieving must have a direction and purpose to galvanize action. As people who know firsthand the tragedies of mental illness and addiction, and the triumphs that are possible, we all call on you to take immediate action.
Our nation expects nothing less of all of us.