Melissa Jonson-Reid, PhD, professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, is director of the Center for Violence and Injury Protection, which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The focus of Jonson-Reid’s research is on the prevention of child abuse and neglect, as well as the secondary prevention of health and socio-emotional consequences of childhood exposure to maltreatment and other forms of family violence. She is also a faculty scholar in WUSTL’s Institute for Public Health. She responds to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut:
First, I think it is important to say that there is no response that can convey adequately the sense of horror and sorrow felt by myself and many others when we heard of the tragedy at Sandy Hook. Our hearts go out to the families and community.
Locally, it is important to remember to check in with each other. Sometimes, such events can trigger emotions related to prior losses in our own lives. So, if you or a friend or family member are feeling overwhelmed by this event, then it is important to feel comfortable and empowered to seek support. School personnel and parents should be attuned to possible fears or emotional reactions as children process the news.
The American Council for School Social Work put together a listing of resources for school personnel and parents: http://acssw.org/Trauma_Resources_2012_Newtown_CT.pdf.
For parents, I would point out that on this list there is a particularly brief and useful set of recommendations from the American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/aftermath.aspx
As news and speculation continue, there are some things that seem worthy of our attention no matter what the final investigation reveals.
First, while security measures, thinking about access to weapons, and school safety plans are certainly important, ultimately we need to seek other means of preventing the factors that may lead to such violence.
When profiles of school shooters have been attempted in the past, there have been no clear consistent factors that point to an easy means of screening for risk. However, there are factors that exist in some of these cases that would be good to address even without such horrific events.
For example, bullying and social isolation are factors that impact many of our children both in this country and others. While programming to prevent bullying and improve a sense of inclusion is growing, there is much more that we could do. Schools must be not only safe physically but emotionally for our children.
It is also important that we as a society make available the type of help needed for persons with mental health disorders free from stigma or unreasonable barriers to accessing quality care. Studies indicate that most children either do not receive care or receive inadequate care and assessment.
While few children with mental health concerns are at risk of violence, unaddresed depression, anxiety or other disorders diminish their quality of life and ability to function at home and at school.
There is also much we still need to understand about mental health and children. It is only recently that our view of adolescent brain development, for example, changed rather radically. There is a need to continue to advance our understanding of what works with whom so that we can provide the care that our children deserve.
Finally we need to continue to support the ability of families, no matter what the composition or socioeconomic status, to raise healthy children. Family conflict, lack of awareness of effective parenting strategies, social isolation, stress of trying to meet basic needs among many factors can make it difficult for parents to provide the emotional and concrete supports children need for healthy development.
Again, this makes sense, not just to prevent violence, but to produce children who will grow to be healthy, productive members of society across all domains of their lives.
While we grieve the tragedy, we must remember that there are things we can do to ultimately offer a better future for our children and ourselves.