How can we sleep?

lanzaby Patrick Vecchio

I watched President Obama’s emotional remarks Friday in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. I was glad I had a box of tissues nearby. I suspect millions of us have had the same reaction.

A story line that surfaced yesterday and will linger for weeks is the inevitable question of motive. What could have prompted such evil acts? The question, though, seeks a rational answer for irrational deeds. No answer will ever be found. The same question is asked about people who commit suicide. The question goes unanswered then, too.

While we’ll never be able to point to a single instance that leads to horrific decisions like the one the gunman made yesterday, we can realistically put these instances into a broader context — mental health. People with mental health problems are among our nation’s most seriously under-served population. Take a look around the place you live and count the agencies serving people with mental illnesses. You’ll be able to count them on one hand and have fingers left over. Ask people who work there about the burgeoning need for mental health services. Ask them about financial trends; I don’t think you’ll find any of the agencies have more money at their disposal than they had five years ago. You’ll find staffing levels have dropped. In short, you’ll find fewer resources. How can mental health professionals hope to help ticking human time bombs if they don’t have the resources to find them and provide them the care they need?

The same is true of schools. How many students does each guidance counselor serve now, as opposed to five or ten years ago? There’s a hugely important related point here: Ask counselors how much of their time is spent dealing with students who are angry to a degree that is beyond comprehension for those of us who don’t see it? The home lives for many children are the exact opposite of the word “nurturing.” Taking care of these children has fallen on the school districts for the same reason that schools now serve breakfast to students — because they’re not getting it at home. Think of what this does to children’s self-esteem. As my wife, a retired elementary school principal, used to repeatedly say, “For many of our students, school is the best part of their day.”

Could mass shootings by people who are barely adults, age-wise, be averted by providing much more comprehensive mental health services in schools, by working with students steeped in anger to subdue their rage and their growing sense that their lives are valueless? I don’t think we’ll ever know. For one, continuing government funding cuts to education show just how valuable education is to our society. We should individually and collectively shame our elected officials for not fighting like alley cats to reverse this trend. We should shout at them to provide money to give our kids the care and nurturing that my generation received in school. Maybe now these things will happen. Maybe now there is cause for hope.

This is the only area where headway can be made. The National Rifle Association will once again trot out its well-worn arguments, some of which I agree with: for instance, the truth that only law-abiding citizens will comply with new government restrictions on firearms. There are, though, gun-control ideas worth discussing: for example, should people be held more accountable for crimes committed with their legally obtained weapons? Should people be held more accountable if their legally obtained but unsecured firearms are used during the commission of crimes? However, the NRA’s unwillingness to even consider whether people really need military-grade automatic weapons for self-protection or hunting signals that this organization isn’t going to come up with constructive ideas for mitigating the firearms avalanche.

And so, unless we as a nation are willing to recognize the need for a massive investment in services for people with mental health problems, slaughters like the one in Sandy Hook will emerge from the headlines with chilling frequency.