On Friday, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a gunman (or two gunmen) opened fire in a classroom, wounding multiple people and, perhaps, killing dozens. The gunman is now dead.
Blood was spilled in an elementary school. An entire kindergarten classroom is unaccounted for as I write this. Kids whose major concern was whether their art projects were up to par and how many hours were left before recess collided with the ultimate terror of a madman seeking to end their lives.
Kindergarteners are almost certainly among the casualties. And the psychological bleeding from this incident will not be easily stopped.
The limits, which even the most violent (or violently ill) among us would seemingly never violate, continue to be violated. The shooting of 5-year-olds would have seemed to be one such limit. But something has gone terribly wrong in the American psyche—perhaps a dulling of real-life emotions via reality TV and Facebook and iPhones. The needle measuring what someone must do to shock us has moved further into the red zone, faster than most would have imagined possible.
What now? How do we help the survivors, their families and all the American families whose kids feel less safe today than they did yesterday?
First, we should tell them that horrific violence is still mercifully uncommon—that the risk to any one school in America is, thankfully, extremely, extremely limited. We should tell them also that events like the one in Newtown on Friday almost always turn out to be driven by severe psychological turmoil or psychiatric illness in the assailant—not because that forgives anything, but because it takes the boogeyman out of the story and suggests a solution to such horrific violence might be found through better outreach to the unstable among us and better management of those we identify as unstable.
It shows we could become more powerful in protecting ourselves (which we certainly could—by beefing up the mental health care system, for instance). And we should be listening and listening and listening for children’s anxieties, hearing them out and getting them a professional ear when fears seem to grip them too tightly.
We should also empower our kids—especially those at Sandy Hook and all around Connecticut—to reach out to the bereaved families with cards and letters. Maybe schools around the nation will hold vigils. Those things help—the victims and the survivors and all the kids who participate.
Beyond how to cope with the suffering of children exposed to Friday’s violence, we must make good on a commitment to rebuild our mental health care system and to better connect it to law enforcement. I know nothing about the shooter in Connecticut. And, yet, having worked for these 20 years as an adolescent, adult and forensic psychiatrist, I will tell you there is every probability that he expressed very concerning thoughts or feelings to more than one person before Friday—and those thoughts or feelings should have been acted upon much more completely than they were.
We can do better. We must do better.
One other thing: Those who call for gun control after incidents like this contribute nothing to the solution. Gunmen like Friday’s plan their actions, right down to wearing military garb. They could certainly procure illegal firearms or use incendiary devices to kill. I only wish the kindergarten teacher and principal in Connecticut had been armed.