National priorities must change: Invest in youth, mental health services

By Jonas Allen, Special to the BDN
Posted Dec. 23, 2012, at 12:15 p.m.

The last time I was forced to get my troubled thoughts on paper was in the days following the Tucson massacre. And now after several more mass shootings, here we are again. Only this time the tragedy is above and beyond what even the most jaded among us can compartmentalize and certainly beyond what any of us can comprehend. We are living a national nightmare. This crisis can’t be overlooked any longer.

Our politicians and media put forth a great deal of effort telling us who and what we should be scared of. We are told that outside threats such as terrorism, illegal immigration and Iran need our attention. We spend billions of dollars and dump countless other resources into confronting these threats. What would be our nation’s reaction if one of these outside threats had walked into a school and murdered 20 of our children?

Would we not be moving heaven and Earth to make the changes necessary to prevent this from happening again?

The threat this time was a wealthy white kid who was simply a product of all that is American. He was the product of a society that does not prioritize or invest in mental health services. He was a product of a society that celebrates and immerses itself in violence. He was the product of a society that allowed Nancy Lanza to legally purchase and own, what proved to be beyond any doubt, a weapon of mass destruction.

This massacre is a sign of a society that is in decline. This massacre is a sign of a society that has stopped investing in its young people and its future. We are told that we can’t afford to fully fund our schools but that wealthy people need tax cuts.

We are told that mental health services must be gutted but that we can spend as much as the rest of the world combined on our military. The perverse gun lobby that has helped write our laws tells us that our “freedom” allows weapons of war to be legally purchased and owned. Our sick priorities have been exposed.

Upon first hearing of this event, my initial outrage focused on gun control. Why was the assault weapons ban allowed to expire in 2004? How can anyone honestly say that the writers of our Constitution intended for average citizens to own modern day weapons of mass murder? How could anyone say that the answer to this tragedy would be to add more guns to the equation by arming teachers? How can the National Rifle Association and the rest of the gun lobby say that people such as Nancy Lanza are “responsible gun owners?”

In hindsight, can anyone say there was nothing wrong with Adam Lanza being able to simply walk upstairs in his own house in order to access his weapons of choice? For the sake of our children, legislation for sensible gun control is critically needed and must occur immediately. This is now beyond obvious, and anyone who would ignore our children’s safety and block this action has lost their way.

The Monday following this tragedy brought me face to face with another major component of this incident as I returned to work in my role as a children’s mental health worker. Somehow I did not anticipate the tsunami that was heading my way.

I work with teenage males who have severe emotional and behavioral issues. They have various diagnoses, including autism spectrum disorders. For the last two days I have listened as hysterical parents have contemplated the terrifying possibility that their son could be the next to explode.

In some cases I have been able to confidently say, “I don’t think your son is anything like the shooter.” In other cases I have just promised parents that no matter what, we will stick with them and support them in trying to help their son.

I have been working with this population for more than 10 years. I have seen an increase in the number of children who need mental health services and an increase in the types of violent and aggressive behaviors that my clients exhibit. I believe we have a mental health crisis in our country, and I am particularly concerned with what I see everyday in our young men.

I don’t pretend to have the answers to this situation, but I do know that research and resources are paramount. However, as this crisis has worsened, those in positions of power in state and federal government have systematically cut the funding that allows mental health support programs to exist. Countless programs have been closed and many more are on their way out. Families are often left with accessing mental health services for their children at hospital emergency rooms, which often just send them back home.

Our current path is terrifying, beyond agonizing and unacceptable. The reality of the last several days has made that clear. Five mass shootings in four years has become the status quo. It is time for our national priorities to change.

We must start investing in our children with how we write our laws and how we use our vast resources. Those who say nothing can or should be done and choose to block action will be complicit the next time a massacre occurs. It is time to come together in order to create a better world for our children. They deserve it.

Jonas Allen grew up in Orland and is now a children’s mental health case manager who lives and works in Portland. He has been working with at-risk youths for 11 years and specializes in supporting families that have aggressive and unsafe children.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/12/23/opinion/national-priorities-must-change-invest-in-youth-mental-health-services/ printed on December 25, 2014