In the aftermath of the recent Fort Hood shooting, we are once again as a nation grieving and raising questions about how and why we are facing another unexplainable tragic mass shooting. In trying to look for answers, some are shamefully using the fact that the shooter was a veteran with mental health needs to explain why this event happened, serving only to reinforce the stigma of mental illness, particularly among veterans. Appreciating the needs of veterans instead of stereotyping them as damaged means understanding that the trauma of war and its vast contrast to civilian life can result in reintegration challenges.
Whenever a person with a mental disorder (or assumed to have a mental disorder), veteran or civilian, commits a violent act that makes headlines, there is a call to address the "mental health issue" in violent crimes. However, what is meant by the "mental health issue" is generally unclear. The fact is that killings and overall violence are extremely rare by people with serious mental illness. The vast majority of people, including veterans, with psychiatric disorders do not commit violent acts. Only about 5 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness and most of these violent acts do not involve guns.
So while we don't fully know the motivation behind this tragic event, what we do know is that we must and can help veterans and others struggling with mental health challenges get the help they need. Early identification, assessment and quality treatment, are effective at helping individuals recover and achieve overall well-being. However, many people, including veterans are unwilling or unable to access behavioral health services. Stigma, cost, distance and lack of available services, particularly at times and in places that are convenient are common barriers to getting care. Therefore, we need more services available at times, in forms and in settings, that are most desirable for persons in need. This should include the use of technology based treatments and supports as well as face-to-face services for veterans and their families that are offered in community settings where people are more comfortable getting mental health care. A growing body of research supports the effectiveness of these approaches for improving access to care and treatment outcomes.
Limiting access to highly lethal means, like guns, for those who are in crisis can also save lives. Safety measures, lethal means counseling, education and influencing human behavior can increase time between impulse and action. Suicidal thoughts are often temporary and the actual decision to take one's life is often impulsive, therefore making a strong argument for limiting access to lethal means during acute periods of heightened risk. Another approach is engaging with firearms dealers, gun shop owners and the gun-owning community to increase their involvement in promoting suicide prevention. For more information about this approach, visit Means Matter, a suicide prevention campaign run by the Harvard School of Public Health.
We also know that preventative approaches can help to mitigate mental health challenges. Building opportunities for connectedness with friends, family and the larger community has been identified as an important protective factor against suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Connectedness can lead to increased social contact, sense of belonging, sense of self-worth and access to sources of support. For more on the importance of connectedness to prevent suicide among veterans, read a previous HuffPost blog I wrote with Scott Thompson.
As a society that is increasingly aware of the mental health issues faced by both veterans and civilians, we, as individuals and communities, have an important role in identifying people in emotional distress, offering support around the struggles they face,and getting them connected to care. Trainings in identifying mental health challenges and in suicide prevention for family members, peers, providers and others can enhance our ability to identify, support and make referrals for individuals, including veterans, who are in crisis or at suicidal risk.
While we not be able to make sense of this terrible tragedy, all of us can engage in simple ways everyday to recognize people in distress, support and get assistance for those who need it, and help people engage with family, friends and their communities in ways that offer their lives hope and meaning.
If you or a loved one is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) for confidential crisis support 24/7. You are not alone. Help is available.