During a Wednesday night vigil for Kendrick Castillo, the heroic victim of the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting in Colorado, the students grew frustrated with the adults leading the program because they felt the speakers were politicizing the death of their friend.
A spontaneous protest broke out and several hundred students got up to leave, chanting together during their exit. It is the content of their chant that is so amazing to me: These grieving teens were chanting, “mental health!” together as they left the auditorium.
While we wrestle as a nation to find the correct physical response to these evil attacks on innocent children, I believe that the students of Highland Ranch have highlighted a proactive deterrent that we can all agree on: We need to improve access to mental health services for students across the nation.
A common thread ties together the perpetrators of these all too frequent ambushes: The warning signs were there.
How many lives could’ve been saved if these offenders had been referred to a professional and addressed the issues that drove them to such horrific actions?
Gainesville and Hall County have been leaders in this arena. A local coalition of our team at Center Point, the Gainesville school system (and later Hall County), the United Way and Brenau University began offering counseling services to students in 1985. But a couple of barriers have prevented the expansion of services that I believe could avert some of these tragedies.
First is the cultural stigma attached to mental health services. For those of us of a certain age, we still snicker at the gullible Hollywood types who practiced “Primal Scream Therapy” in the ’60s and ’70s. But, thanks to advancement across several arenas, mental health therapy has become an effective, evidence-based pathway to healing.
Our understanding of the brain and the person has grown exponentially, and the professionals coming out of our universities are expertly trained. Treating the mind with therapy is just as effective and science-based as treating an athlete’s injured knee.
We, as a culture, must change the conversation around mental health services to eliminate the hesitation people feel when they need help.
The second is closely related: We must, as a nation, be willing to make an investment in providing mental health services for our children. The signs are there. The question is, will we heed the warning?
These attacks, along with a host of other data points, are a major signal that there are big problems in children’s lives right now and we need to address them. If we care about our children, we must invest in providing services that we know can make a difference.
Jesus said, “Where your treasure (money) is, there will your heart be also.” Our hearts are with our children and grandchildren. Let’s make sure that our investment matches our concern.