Mental health is political, and it just got more political. An article in Forbes, describes the president's 23 executive orders with the intent to promote gun safety. While I agree that the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School requires us to have frank conversations on our country's gun control and mental health service availability issues, does that mean that we should shrug to ourselves and leave prevention of violence to the politicians? What if I told you that there were very simple ways that ordinary community people could help? Would you be interested to know how we might approach prevention with a heart full of love rather than fear?
1. Get to know your neighbors and community members. Really. Do you know your neighbors and whether they are behaving strangely or showing violent tendencies? No, I'm not suggesting that you get out the binoculars, but rather get out the mugs for a neighborly cup of tea. When community members know each other well, they will be more likely to notice when something's wrong or unusual.
2. Know and socialize with those who may be more isolative and lonely in your community and neighborhoods. Generally speaking, humans are social creatures. They learn from social interactions, so long periods of isolation can be detrimental to their thinking skills through a lack of "reality checks" and feedback with others. Think of times where you had bad ideas that didn't get feedback before you did them. Multiply that by possibly years of alone time. If you add on a history of violence, it is possible to see where a lack of those crucial "reality checks" can get very scary. Mental illness tends to worsen in isolation, as a lack of connection to the warmth of another human being can make living and thinking rationally that much more difficult.
3. Trust your instincts and talk about your concerns. While you should probably avoid being a neighborhood snoop, it's not a good idea to avoid dealing with what you saw or heard during the normal course of active neighborhood involvement. When you believe that something is wrong or unusual for your community or with your neighbors, get feedback from others in the community rather than denying your concerns. If you think that your concerns might require more immediate action, tell the local law enforcement. For example, if you believe that your neighbor is planning violent activity, tell the local law enforcement of what you saw or heard that makes you think that there's danger, and request that officers conduct a "welfare check" on that person rather than putting yourself in possible danger. During welfare checks, law enforcement officers will likely assess the neighbor for immediate mental health needs and safety and link that person to that help if the person's needs are requiring immediate hospitalization. Again, if you believe a person is currently harming themselves or planning to harm others, it is essential that you call the police rather than doing your own investigation. Be safe!
4. Talk about mental health. Mental health is a taboo subject for many people, and that's unfortunate because getting counseling or other means of mental help can sometimes make the difference between life and death for someone who is deeply struggling. Your openness to discuss mental health issues may allow other people to see that emotional struggles are health issues that require practical action and care rather than shameful things to hide.
5. Tell your neighbors that you care for them (but only if you mean it). Remember that part about mental health tending to worsen in isolation? Letting someone know that you see their struggles and care about them can lighten the emotional burden, especially when they know that you won't let them struggle alone. Having a sense of a tribe or community creates a sense of safety, and just this simple sense of safety can be overwhelmingly relieving. Don't say that you care for them if you don't mean it or make promises that you cannot keep, because such empty actions could re-emphasize their loneliness.
I want to emphasize that this is not an all-encompassing plan, nor is it meant to be. Still, I keep hearing in the community a sense of individual helplessness in the midst of a very large and serious issue, and I felt the need to respond. It is true that despite all laws or individual actions, it is inevitable that there will be someone who will do violent things and will evade all detection. Hopefully, though, with actions on the parts of ordinary citizens and new legislation, we can reduce the number of these tragedies, through love rather than fear.