Mental Health, Youth and Mass Shootings

Are we turning our back on kids that need help?

Those three words really shouldn't mingle in a headline, but more and more, young people in America are to blame for mass shootings, and I believe so much of it stems from emotional and mental health problems. 294 mass shootings in 274 days. That's the stat that keeps being tossed around on social media after yesterday's tragic shooting Umpqua Community College in southern Oregon. The Washington Post reports that yesterday's gunman was 26 years old, who is referred to as quiet, and some described him as shy, someone who lived with social anxiety. 

Quiet and shy doesn't add up to a reason to go on a shooting rampage. I'm struggling to understand the why of it all, and what is driving young people over the edge, but feel compelled to try and not overlook this as just another shooting. The frequency of these horrific events can't become so commonplace that we ignore them. People need help, and I wholly believe we have to start by helping the kids before they reach the trying times of puberty and adulthood.

Of course access to guns likely will be debated again after this tragedy. I believe this is important to keep on the topic table, but think the bigger issue is mental health in our society. When, how, what is causing people to feel so desolate, ostracized or enraged that they feel they have to be seen by killing mass numbers of other people? The shooting at AME Episcopal Church in Charleston continues the discussion about racism — which is good and also needs to stay on the table — but I still wonder about Dylan Roof. There's more to his story, who and what let him down so much that he felt it necessary to go on a shooting rampage in a church?

I'm not a psychiatrist, but I am a parent who wants to help my child have the strongest mental, emotional and physical health as possible. I reached out to the folks at Alexander Youth Network who are experts in treating emotional trauma in kids and helping kids cope with anxiety. Dr. Dawn O'Malley, licensed psychologist and clinical director at Alexander Youth Network offered the following tips for parents on signs of emotional or mental trauma to look for, as well as tips on teaching our children how to copy with anxieties.

Overall anxiety isn't a bad thing. Anxiety is body’s internal smoke alarm, says O'Malley. It has a purpose to keep us healthy and alive and without it, we’d keep going and not necessarily react to risk. According to O'Malley, anxiety can become a problem when a person overestimates the amount of risk that causes the body's alarm system to go off, and/or when a person underestimates his or her ability to cope with the risk. (Makes sense!)

For example, say a child has a fear of bees and it's such an acute fear, he won't go outside. He likely is overestimating the risk of a bee stinging him. "Talk to the child about how much risk there is," she says. Ask him how many times he has been outside and stung by a bee. His likely response may be once or twice, she says. Then ask him how many times he's been outside and not been stung by a bee. The answer likely is lots.

A discussion that encourages the child to find his or her own answers is helpful because it teaches him or her to think through an anxiety and assess risk. You can also work with a child to go find facts to help relieve an anxiety that may be based on misinformation. This process can help them develop stronger coping skills.  

To improve coping skills, O'Malley suggests again to use discussion. Ask him what he thinks would happen if (insert fear here) happened. Then ask how would he handle the situation if it occurs? You want to help children learn how to evaluate and process worry, so they know how to reset their internal smoke alarms, she says. 

But like a mechanized smoke alarm, if overused, it can break. For humans, repeated traumas can be the overuse of the body's anxiety mechanism and it can cause it to break or malfunction. O'Malley says acute signs of emotional trauma may include: 

• Extreme social withdrawal

• Fatigue — so tired that they don’t want to go do things they usually do (hang with friends, go to school, etc.)

• Any type of self-injury

• Feedback from teachers or friends’ parents that they are noticing something different with your child.

• A sudden change in friends.

These acute signs can sometimes look like defiance or opposition, but it's not always the case, says O'Malley. Just like physical development, any sudden jumps or changes in emotional development are something to question. If your internal parenting alarm goes off, and your gut tells you something seems awry with your child, reach out to your child's pediatrician to discuss normative emotional behaviors in development.

With more awareness and tolerance of each other, I hope we can find more peace and less anxiety as a whole in America. Smile more. Encourage more. And remember compassion.