According to the Washington Post during the past two decades more than 85% of school shootings in the United States have occurred in the hands of people younger than 25, and the majority of these occurred in the hands of children under 18 years of age.
It has been suggested that gun violence might decrease if we were able to provide better mental health care. As a counselor for young people, I want to discuss some challenges that have arisen in this century that may need to be considered as we work towards improvement of mental health services for young people in the United States.
Some Reasons for Worsening Mental Health
In the Fall of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. It was suggested that the mental health crisis was exacerbated by COVID related stress.
Worsening mental health also may be related to the lack of accessibility of extended family. In the past, it was common for three generations of a family to live together or very near each other. Thus, teens who were not keen on interacting with their parents were able to easily talk to a trusted adult, who could help guide them through turbulent times. However, such access is no longer possible for many young people.
Additionally, interactions between neighbors have become less common, which is another potential source support that may no longer be available. Teens may have less access to their teachers as mentors because the teachers are too focused on school tests. Clergy are less available because teens no longer participate as much in religious activities. Further, teens are often involved in so many after school activities that they do not have time to introspect or talk to a mentor.
Use of social media is yet another modern stressor that is known to be associated with increased rates of anxiety and depression. Reasons for this include that engagement in negative interactions through social media (such as cyberbullying) can lead to mood disturbances, and those teens often develop feelings of inadequacy when they compare themselves to an idealized version of their peers, which is presented through social media.
Many children are no longer afforded ample opportunities to develop resilience. When children are faced with an obstacle, e.g., an academic or social challenge, parents often step in preemptively to help ease their children’s struggles. Further, in our society, many parents and children blame the “system” for the children’s difficulties. As a result, children are less apt to develop a sense of responsibility for their behavior. Thus, when a teen is confronted with a challenge his or her repertoire for dealing effectively with the issue likely is limited.
Our society’s changing views about the sanctity of life also may have led to some young people’s callous attitude towards life. Our society has grown increasingly secular over the past few decades, and thus religious ideas about the sanctity of life have become less influential. Additionally, society’s fascination with and acceptance of violent behavior is reflected in increasingly violent Hollywood movies and many video games involving graphic shooting of people and aberrant sexual behavior.
Steps to Consider for Improvement in Mental Health
While we cannot recreate the extended family, we can educate parents regarding the importance of encouraging teens to take time to introspect or interact with mentors, appropriate use of social media, and how to help their children develop a better sense of personal responsibility. As a society we ought to consider whether we want to change how life is portrayed in entertainment venues. Also, we ought to consider teaching that learning how to achieve a peaceful attitude and identifying constructive solutions leads to greater happiness than expression of anger and sadness.
Unfortunately, access to mental health services has been made more difficult because of the perceived stigma in seeking mental health care, a severe shortage of mental health providers and mental health facilities, and the lack of affordability of mental health care, which often is not covered adequately by insurance.
I propose that if mental health care was available easily, many would take advantage of receiving such therapy, including people who are not in extreme crisis. Thus, people would realize that seeking mental health care does not mean that something is terribly wrong, and the associated stigma should decrease.
Because of the shortage in mental health care providers, in many communities primary care providers currently are the first line medical practitioners who prescribe medications for depression and anxiety. Further, I believe that all good clinicians also use effective psychological approaches to help treat their patients. Thus, many of these individuals also should be receptive to being taught how to provide basic psychotherapy, including through use of cognitive behavioral techniques and hypnosis. In this way, mental health care can be offered through many more venues.
Another way to improve accessibility to mental health services is to encourage their use through telehealth, as we did during the COVID pandemic. Further, during the pandemic many US states waived their requirement that treating providers must be licensed in the states in which the patients reside. Permanent waivers of such requirements would be very helpful, especially in states with smaller populations that do not support maintaining many mental health care professionals.
Insurance companies should be educated about how poor mental health adversely affects most people with chronic disease. In fact, when patients receive mental health therapy their symptoms and costs associated with their treatment can decrease dramatically (Anbar, 2021). Once companies recognize that mental health care leads to decreased overall costs, they will become happy to provide funding for such care and may actively encourage patients to seek it.
Call to Action
Improved mental health care should help decrease violent behavior. However, our society and mental health care industry will need to undergo significant changes to enhance such care. I believe that we should rise to these challenges immediately, so that we can help halt the devastation wreaked by a small number of mentally unstable individuals, as soon as possible.
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