Educators Say Mental Health Awareness Key to Preventing Gun Violence

In January, the nation has marked the second anniversary of the mass shooting in Tucson, listened to the emotional testimony at the court hearing for the Aurora movie theater gunman, and watched brave elementary school students return to their classrooms after the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary last month in Newtown, Connecticut. And then on Friday, January 11, yet another shooting took place at a high school in California, underscoring the urgent need for national action on gun safety.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, President Obama promised to take concrete steps to reduce gun violence and on Wednesday he announced expansive new policies, including background checks for all firearms buyers and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. He also announced more federal funding for mental health and school safety initiatives, reflecting recommendations NEA submitted to the White House.

“We believe the common-sense recommendations put forth by President Obama are an important first step toward keeping children safe, providing more support for students and educators, and keeping military-style weapons out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said on Wednesday. “To solve the problem, we must have not only meaningful action on preventing gun violence but also bullying prevention and much greater access to mental health services, so that educators and families can identify problems and intervene before it’s too late.”

A recent NEA poll confirmed that a majority of educators support strong laws to prevent gun violence and oppose a proposal to allow teachers and school employees to receive firearms training and carry firearms in schools.  Educators are also advocating for a more comprehensive approach to curbing violence.

“We must dramatically expand our investment in mental health services,” Van Roekel says. “Proper diagnosis can and often starts in our schools, yet we continue to cut funding for school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists.”

In fact, states have cut at least $4.35 billion in public mental health spending from 2009 to 2012, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, with schools taking a particularly hard hit – counselors are often the first on the chopping block during education budget cuts.

“It is well past time to reverse this trend and ensure that these services are available and accessible to those who need our support,” says Van Roekel. “We must also continue to do more to prevent bullying in our schools, an epidemic that can often precede violence.”

Educators in our nation’s classrooms agree. As pundits and politicians debate gun legislation and how to keep our schools safe from violence, those who work in our schools every day are making their voices heard on NEA Today’s Facebook page.

Diane Collins agrees that we need full time psychologists at every school, but adds that the country needs a national campaign “that promotes mental health services as being good for people of all ages.”

Mental health services at our schools is crucial, says Karen Gagnon McMahon, as well as partnering with parents at the earliest stages. “Early intervention is so important, she says. “Families, schools and mental health providers working together as a team is key.”

Parental awareness and involvement in helping kids cope with mental health issues is an obvious part of the solution, as is being involved in a more visible, day-to-day basis at our schools, say many educators.

“If parents are at the school, during the day, volunteering, visiting, connecting, teachers and students will be supported, secure, and ‘undesirables will be less likely to consider approaching schools,” says DMarie Fekete.

Bob Williams agrees. “Nothing was as comforting as the small neighborhood school. The centralized, big schools may be cheaper, but at what cost?”

A lot of educators are also concerned about our students’ exposure to violence depicted in the media. “I know there are lots of kids out there with access to serious violent video games, for example,” says Jamie Nodell. “That is one area that really needs to be addressed.”

A long-term, and sustainable solution is one that addresses how we educate the whole child, including interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. This approach won’t work, however, until we model the right behavior for our children and start a national conversation about how to resolve conflicts without violence.

“School is a place to learn how to solve problems,” says Sharon McCreary. “When will we, as a nation, start talking about conflict resolution that does not include hurting other human beings?”