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Let's Talk About Mental Health, Not "Evil"

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Friday's tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut was unthinkable. How a young person can take the lives of so many other young people is not something any of us are prepared to make sense of. The events in Newtown sparked a lot of Internet discussion on gun control and the media's representation of children following violent events. However, as is the case with most well-covered human tragedies, in the day following the events in Newtown, mental health discourse was decidedly missing from the reporting.

I am certain in the days to come, when our feelings are less fresh, journalists and bloggers will slowly begin to address how mental health may have played a role in this tragedy. But to me the fact that mental health is still an afterthought is frightening. Leaving mental health out of the initial discussion means lost opportunities to educate and de-stigmatize mental illness when audience interest is peaked. Missing these opportunities not only perpetuates the silence surrounding mental health, but also over-simplifies discussions on what we can do to prevent such acts from happening in the future.

Perhaps a most basic way to initiate a discussion on how mental health plays into this tragedy is to identify how a discussion of mental health is relevant to each individual involved with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Adam Lanza

"Evil visited this community today," the Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy said following the shooting. Such words are not uncommon following acts of violence, but their prominence still made me cringe. I have to ask, whose "evil" are we talking about when we classify this tragedy as such? Does such language and the emphasis we place on it imply that we believe that Adam Lanza was an innately evil and bad person?

I'm reminded of the 2008 Greyhound bus murder of Timothy McClean. Vince Li, who, was convicted of beheading Mclean, had schizophrenia and was found to be not criminally responsible for the crime. In the early days following the terrifying event, Li was similarly villainized in the media. And yet, this candid interview with Li speaks to how gravely schizophrenia dictated his life.

It is short-sighted to look at a man who killed 27 people and subsequently killed himself without thinking about how this man might have been struggling prior to this experience. There have been unconfirmed suggestions that Adam might have been living with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, a personality disorder, or other mental illness.

Furthermore, Adam Lanza was 20 years old. With so much discussion on the innocence of children, and our collective grief over the fact that the children lost will not have the opportunity to live full and meaningful lives, it seems relevant to think about how young Adam was at the time of his crime and death.

Regardless of Adam's specific diagnosis, it seems relevant to wonder what kind of support system he had. We don't know what kind of relationships he had with family and friends and we don't know if he had access to formal, as well as these informal, supports.

Last night, President Obama shared that he and other parents exposed to this tragedy will "hug our children a little tighter and we'll tell them that we love them." But sometimes mental illness is so significant that it is too much for parents or families to cope with on their own. And sometimes hugs and love simply aren't part of a family dynamic.

We have no idea what kind of relationship Adam had with his family, but we do know that he is accused of murdering his mother who we can suppose was a member of his support system. This tremendous and fatal breakdown demonstrates that this was a family who could have benefited some sort of external support system.

Survivors

When I first heard about the shooting in Newtown, my mind immediately went to the child and adult survivors; those who witnessed chaos and killing happening all around them and likely feared for their own lives. For these individuals, this is a critical time to address issues of mental health and mental illness.

The risk for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for the survivors is real, and prolonged impact from this trauma is certainly possible. Witnessing trauma can impact a person's ability to form relationships with others; lead to mental health issues such as anxiety or depression; bring about substance abuse or other unhealthy means of coping with stress such as self-harm; and result in difficulty performing the tasks of every day life.

For the children at the school, losing their classmates will inevitably impact social dynamics. Some children will have lost peers whom they relied on to feel safe in their school, some will have lost bullies, some will have lost siblings. Some will show remarkable resilience and be able to return to their activities of daily living without much difficulty, and others will have intensified fears, academic difficulties and isolative tendencies.

Similar to the discussion on Adam Lanza, we need to think about what kinds of support systems the survivors had in place prior to this incident. Do the children involved have adequate resources in the home to sooth their anxiety and support their recovery? Some children will have been living with pre-existing mental health or learning challenges and may have already had difficulty communicating their social and emotional needs.

And for the adult survivors of this trauma, we need to wonder how their life experience has prepared them to respond to the increased stresses associated with this trauma. How will the adults who witnessed the deaths of their colleagues and students be able to move forward in their personal and professional lives? Some adults will feel feelings of anger, responsibility, guilt, intensified fears, and hopelessness. We need to ask how each survivor's individual mental health needs will be addressed and how they will be equipped with the resources to prevent prolonged impacts of this trauma.

Ryan Lanza

In the early hours following the shooting in Newtown, 24-year-old Ryan Lanza was identified as the primary suspect. It was later reported that police had misidentified the shooter who was in fact Ryan's brother, Adam.

The impact that this experience could have on Ryan Lanza's mental health is undeniable. Ryan lost members of his immediate family -- potentially his support system -- and could experience a number of challenges related to grief, the trauma of losing his family, the trauma of being accused and later questioned about the murder of 27 people, and the trauma of the entire Internet community banding together against him.

We need to ask where someone like Ryan can turn after his life is publicized and the whole world believes him to be, if only temporarily, "evil." Despite the fact that news media have corrected their errors in identifying Ryan as the shooter, public discourse surrounding who this person may or may not be does not seem to have shifted dramatically. In fact, rather than addressing the gravity of this error, it seems that once the error was reported, Ryan Lanza was more or less forgotten.

I don't find this altogether surprising. We tend to forget the players once the sensationalizing dies down. In this case, we were aware of Ryan only until the moment that there was someone more "evil" or a child more "innocent" to look at. And yet, where does Ryan Lanza go from here? What about his recovery? What about his ability to cope without these members of his family, to go about his activities of daily living, to be out in public? What about the prolonged impacts on his mental health?

People watching the story at home

We cannot have a discussion on mental health related to this tragedy without thinking about the mental health of individuals; in other words, all of us, indirectly impacted by this trauma. Feeling fearful; experiencing anxiety; feeling sad or angry -- all of these are normal reactions to exposing oneself to a tragedy like Friday's. We need to be able to talk about these feelings in order to help maintain our own mental health and to prevent our loved ones and ourselves from spiraling without adequate supports.

We know that news media is filled with stories and images of pain and human suffering. We see these images delay; we even normalize their existence. Nevertheless, as individuals we are impacted by exposure to negativity in different ways. Not everyone can handle images of tragedy with the same strength and resilience. Some people truly can separate what they see in from what they experience, but witnessing violent images in the media can be incredibly destabilizing for others.

When we talk about mental health we are not only talking about people who are living with mental illness. We are talking about promoting and maintaining a base level of healthiness for every individual. If we are not talking about our mental and emotional reactions -- if we are labeling those who do as ill or unstable or weak -- we are perpetuating a culture that de-values and often all around ignores mental health. Since we have all had some level of exposure to this tragedy, our individual and collective mental health is relevant here.

And, finally, if we are going to talk about gun control, we need to talk about the mental health of those who use firearms in violent crimes.

This is certainly well beyond the scope of this post, however, a quick mention that discussions on firearm controls and discussions on mental health following the Newtown need not be mutually exclusive.

When we speak about firearm controls we need to go beyond a simple discussion of restriction and look at why individuals might feel powerless enough to perpetuate violence towards others or themselves. Living with poverty; exposure to violence in neighbourhoods; lack of social supports; stigma related to ability or mental health status; racism; underemployment -- all of these can contribute to a person's feelings of powerlessness and inevitably impact a individual's ability to cope in stressful situations. Though restricting access to firearms is a start, relying on restriction fails to address the significant social and structural inequalities that can chip away at a person's resilience and result in tragedy.

Like many violent crimes, Newtown, Connecticut has opened the door for us to ask ourselves how we are going to prevent something like this from happening in the future. We need to ask: How can we be aware of our neighbours, and protect one another from becoming isolated without adequate support? Where do our governments financial priorities lie? How can we hold the media accountable in the initial stages of reporting so that mental health becomes part of an everyday discourse? No discussion on prevention of violent crime is complete without an open and honest consideration of mental health. And before it is once again too little too late, we need to start normalizing this discussion now.

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The president of the Connecticut Funeral Director's Association said the funeral and burial process for Newtown victims, which began Monday with the separate burials of Noah Pozner and Jack Pinto, who both were six-years-old, is unlike anything he has seen before.

"I've unfortunately seen lots of kids who have died," said Pasquale Forino, 46, who runs Neilan Funeral Home in New London, Conn. "But this truly shakes your foundation to the core, and in a small town like Newtown, they need lots of help to handle this week of burials."

Forino and a group of morticians who have volunteered have driven to Newtown every day since Friday to help tend to families who are grieving and prepare arriving bodies for viewings and burials. The main funeral home in the town, Honan Funeral Home, is handling the process for 11 victims. Of those, Forino said he has worked on three -- all kids.

"It's not about me, it's about the families and victims. But it still affects us," he said. "We do what we can do to take care of the families. We'll deal with our own emotional needs later."

--HuffPost's Jaweed Kaleem

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Sandy Hook School students will be attending Chalk Hill School in Monroe, CT as an alternative education facility in the wake of the shooting. Monroe police answered questions during a press conference briefing about the preparations of the building for use by Sandy Hook Elementary School, and outlined how police officers will keep children safe and secure on their first day back to school.

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Via Patch:

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, a New Jersey columnist urges people and politicians to fight for stronger gun control laws.

"Every time there is a mass shooting, we shake our heads and bemoan the tragic violence. We wonder aloud why our elected officials cannot stanch the flow of weapons. We rue the fact that there are so many troubled individuals out there, desperate for help and poised to commit terrible crimes, for no apparent reason. But nothing ever changes," she writes. "This holiday season, can we all rise up as one and say ENOUGH?"

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Via Patch:

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, issued a statement Monday in the wake of last week's school shooting in Newtown, Conn., saying it's time to get assault weapons off the streets.

"After a heartbroken weekend where the nation grieved with the families of Newtown, it's time for elected leaders to come together and determine what we can do to help end the culture of violence that is leading to these tragedies," Shaheen said. "We need a comprehensive approach that includes improving access to mental health services, better enforcement of our current laws, and we need to get deadly assault weapons off our streets."

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A nationally representative face-to-face survey of more than 10,000 teens ages 13-18 turned up alarming findings about their access to professional mental health care.

Only about one-third of those with any lifetime mental disorder got professional help, and just half of those severely impaired by mental disorders received professional help, the study found. State and federal efforts to increase youth mental health services aren't working, it said. Racial and ethnic minority youth were least likely to get help, the study found.

-- HuffPost's David Wood

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Via Newtown Patch:

Lines are forming outside funeral homes in Newtown, Fairfield and Monroe, CT as people assemble to pay their respects to three 6-year-olds who were among the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14. In Newtown, services for Jack Pinto, 6, are set to start at 1 p.m. In Fairfield, mourners gathered for services for Noah Pozner, 6.

A wake is scheduled today in Monroe for James Mattioli, 6. The three 6-year-olds are the first of the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to be laid to rest. Funeral services for the other victims will take place tomorrow and Wednesday.

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Via Patch:

The controversial Westboro Baptist Church has announced plans to protest outside of the Anne Arundel Circuit Court on Jan 2.—the first day same-sex couples will be able to wed there. "On that day the court starts committing that abomination that brings the shooter like it did in Connecticut," said Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of the church's founder.

She also made headlines this weekend when she claimed via Twitter that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, was sent by God. She told Annapolis Patch, "God keeps sending the shooter."

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American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and AFT Michigan President David Hecker on Sunday urged Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder Sunday to veto legislation that would allow concealed firearms in schools and other locations.

The tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, is a “chilling and heartbreaking reminder” that “firearms have absolutely no place in our schools,” they wrote. “Gov. Snyder, please show the kind of leadership that students, families, educators and community members need to be as safe as possible in their schools. You can set an example for Michigan and the nation by taking this small but significant step to reduce gun violence by vetoing S.B. 59.”

View the letter here.

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@ TVMarci : Wow. Someone from CA just called the #Newtown General Store saying she wants to buy coffee for everyone in town. Every cup is billed to her

@ TVMarci : Clerk @ #Newtown General Store started crying when woman offered to pay for every coffee purchased today. What an amazing #actofkindness

@ TVMarci : This sign now hangs in front of the #Newtown General Store. Thank you, Tom Cabanaugh! #actofkindess http://t.co/DsLk5B2W

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From Patch:

Reports of a suspicious person at the Branchfield train station in Ridgefield Monday morning brought out police and placed all local schools on lockdown. Authorities, along with a K-9 unit, are canvassing the area after receiving a report of a man with an unknown item slung over his back. Police were first informed of the suspicious person at about 9 a.m.

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From Patch:

An unidentified person was reportedly taken into police custody in the vicinity of Upper Dublin High School this morning following a report of a possibly armed subject at the school. Montgomery County Public Safety radio reports indicated one person at the school was in custody at about 9:00 a.m.

Numerous police units from surrounding departments had been on their way to the school and were instructed to return to their home jurisdictions. An Upper Dublin Police Department representative said by telephone that the incident was a "misunderstanding" and that students were never in danger. WPVI-TV reported via its Twitter feed that a student's umbrella was mistaken for a firearm.

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From the AP:

The man identified as the gunman who killed 26 children and adults in an elementary school took college classes when he was only 16, a spokesman for Western Connecticut State University said Monday.

Paul Steinmetz, spokesman for the Danbury school, confirmed that Adam Lanza earned a 3.26 grade point average while a student there. He dropped out of a German language class and withdrew from a computer science class, but earned an A in a computer class, A-minus in American history and B in macroeconomics.

He participated when called on by the teacher in his evening course on introductory German, according to Dot Stasny, who was one of about a dozen other students in the class in the spring of 2009. She said she and a classmate once invited him out to a bar but he declined, saying he was only 17.

Read the rest here.

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@ smkeyes : .@NRA still hasn't tweeted since Friday. Deafening silence.

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Writing in the National Journal, Ron Fournier worries that the wrong lessons will be drawn from the Sandy Hook tragedy:

My son cradled the iPad and scanned The New York Times article I had downloaded: "A Gunman, Recalled as Intelligent and Shy, Who Left Few Footprints in Life." It said mass murderer Adam Lanza may have had Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

Tyler is an Aspie. He shrugged. “If you meet somebody with Asperger’s,” he said, “you’ve only met one person with Asperger’s.”

Tyler's point is worth us all noting: Don’t overgeneralize. Don’t stigmatize in a rush to explain inexplicable evil. Autism didn't cause this tragedy: Asperger’s is a blip on the far-reaching autism spectrum and no two cases are the same. Just as no “typical” person deserves to be tar-brushed with the evil acts of another, Aspies don’t deserve the bad press they’re getting.

Read the whole piece here.

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HuffPost's Amanda Terkel reports:

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the strongest backers of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the Democratic Party, said it is time to sit down and have a "sensible, reasonable" debate about gun control in light of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., and expressed an openness to banning assault weapons.

"It's time to move beyond rhetoric. We need to sit down and have a common-sense discussion and move in a reasonable way. ... Everything has to be on the table," Manchin said in an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Monday, adding that he had just come from deer hunting with his family.

Manchin's comments are significant because he has a "A" rating from the NRA for his pro-gun positions, and the organization endorsed him as recently as October 2012.

Read more here.

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From The Associated Press:

Dennis Carlson, superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, said a mental health consultant will meet with school officials Monday, and there will be three associates – one to work with the elementary, middle and high schools, respectively. As the day goes on, officials will be on the lookout for any issues that arise, and extra help will go where needed.

"We are concerned for everybody – our staff and student body and parents," Carlson said. "It's going to be a day where we are all going to be hypervigilant, I know that."

Full story here.

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View the video and photos here (via Newtown Patch)

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An excerpt from the prayer by Rev. Rob Mossis, vicar of Christ the King Lutheran Church, following the president's address:

"We bring to you 20 new stars in the heavens, 20 new saints, 20 new angels. We bring to you those who risk their lives for us everyday not counting the cost, and we bring to you those who died, those who counsel, those who bless and embrace the confused and the broken. And now in this prayer, we bring to you ourselves, our questions, our doubts, our anger and our hearts, and we pray for the peace, the hope and the renewal of trust that can come only from a God who first conceived us in love and places a hand of compassion on each of our shouldlers even in the most trying times. And so tonight for our community, a community deepl pained, we ask you to heal our brokenness, to answer our questions, to replace our doubts with certainty, our anger with peace and our hurt with and healing…"

Full story here from Newtown Patch.

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@ E_Laffs2 : Can't stop listening to your voicemails, Mommy. I need you now and forever... @DHochsprung

@ E_Laffs2 : A great man holding my precious niece, @DHochsprung woulda love to see it. I love you mommy @BarackObama http://t.co/jbjHzL6y

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An excerpt from a prayer by Rev. Jim Solomon of the New Hope Community Church:

"Dear Lord, as we leave the children that we lost in your hands, we ask that by your grace you woud empower us to bless and comfort the children that are still here in our hands. Please be with them in a special way as they grieve the loss of siblings and friends. Life will never be the same, yet we ask that you help these precious little ones to carry the spirits of their lost loved ones in their hearts as they go along living their lives to its fullest according to your will for each of these girls and boys."

Full story from Newtown Patch here.

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@ Chass63 : My mother was murdered. Murdered. This can't be real.

@ Chass63 : My mom would be SO proud to see President Obama holding her granddaughter. But not as proud as I am of her. http://t.co/YDU88x3O

@ Chass63 : My mom, Dawn Hochsprung, was taken tragically from me. But she went down in a blaze of glory that truly represents who she was. #Newtown

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"Eleven year-old Briana Krasowski is among those waiting to attend an interfaith vigil service for Sandy Hook victims on Sunday, Dec. 16. Credit Amy Krasowski"

View the picture here.

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@ MayorMark : There will be a Danbury Police Officer in every elementary school tomorrow. #Danbury

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The National Rifle Association (NRA) appeared to have reactivated its Facebook page Sunday, after having temporarily disabled the page following Friday's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The nation's most influential pro-gun lobby has faced withering criticism in the days following the mass murder, during which authorities believe 20 year-old Adam Lanza used a legally obtained Bushmaker assault rifle, as well as two handguns, to kill 20 children and six adults at the Newtown, Conn., elementary school.

The day before the shootings, the NRA boasted of having achieved 1.7 million "Likes," on Facebook. The group's reactivated Facebook page simply contains a link to a Wikipedia entry about the group. The pared down NRA page had 32,313 Likes on Sunday at 6:30 pm.

The group's Twitter account does not appear to have been deactivated, but it has not been updated since Friday morning, before the shootings began. A spokeswoman for the group told Time Warner Cable late Friday that "Until the facts are thoroughly known, NRA will not have any comment."

--Christina Wilkie, HuffPost

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A group of volunteers calling themselves "Santas for Sandy Hook" have been out on Newtown's streets this weekend, raising money to support the victims of Friday's shooting.

What started as a small group setting up tables quickly grew to about 25 volunteers, said Zoe Walter, who was with Kay Donohuy and Kristen Brassard at a table in front of Starbucks on Church Hill Road. Walter said the group hopes to raise ,000 for the victims by the end of the weekend.

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A member of Westboro Baptist Church, the group that is known for picketing funerals of soldiers and AIDS victims, says the group plans to picket Sandy Hook Elementary School, according to Examiner.com.

A day after Friday's shooting in Newtown, CT, where police said 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother and then 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary, Westboro Baptist member Shirley Phelps-Roper posted a message on Twitter that the group would "sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment."

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Pictures and video of President Obama landing in Connecticut.

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The Stratford High School Class of 2003 has established a memorial fund for their former classmate Victoria "Vicki" Soto, who died in the mass shooting Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

Upon hearing the first rounds of gunfire in an adjacent classroom, the 27-year-old teacher scrambled to hide her first-grade students, 15 or 16 kids, before the gunman made his way to her room. After entering the room, the shooter confronted and killed Soto but the students were saved because the gunman did not see them in the room.

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Police have ID'd Adam Lanza as the shooter and Nancy as the final victim, according to Newtown.Patch

Also in that link, memories of Adam from a neighbor: “He was the quiet kid at the bus stop,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Hi,’ and he’d say, ‘Hey,’ back and that was the extent of it.”

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