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Missed mental illness warning signs lead to trouble

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People who suffer from mental illness are no more likely to cause acts of violence than anyone else, but the ability to recognize warning signs can prevent possible harm, according to a local clinical therapist.

Recognition of certain troubling behaviors and, more importantly, getting help for the people displaying them are the two most important steps when dealing with people who could be suffering from mental illness, said Melissa Newland, clinical services coordinator and therapist at Centerstone Indiana in Columbus.

She said it seems that those steps were not taken in regard to the man who entered an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 and shot and killed 20 students and six teachers.

Some behavioral warning signs, Newland said, include:

  • Loss of temper on a daily basis
  • Significant vandalism or property damage
  • Increase in use of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Threatening others regularly
  • Displaying feelings of being alone or bullied
  • Fascination with guns

If warning signs such as these are exhibited by a person, she said, getting them help with a professional counselor is important.

“(Counselors) can help them understand that anger is a part of life, but they can free themselves of violence and there are other options to solving problems,” Newland said.

Seeking professional help is especially important for young people who display troubling signs, Newland said, because they don’t have the coping skills to deal with daily stresses.

Kathy Compton, director of IUPUC’s undergraduate psychology program, said the Connecticut shooting has raised questions about gun control laws. But, she added, there should be discussion of whether states have enough mental health services to adequately help people.

Compton and Newland said states have experienced cuts to funding for mental health services.

“You can control guns all you want, but gun control alone does not address the behaviors of the people who pull the triggers,” Compton said.

Indiana has a good supply of mental health services for youths and young adults with emotional and behavioral problems, Compton said. Indiana was one of a few states that received a multimillion-dollar federal grant to develop those systems.

“When I think about the shooter, I wonder if he had ever been seen by a mental health professional and if he ever received any help. The news stories say his mother took him out of school and taught him at home,” Compton said.

“An ideal solution would be cooperative systems of care between mental health and the school system that includes individual and family counseling, possible group home or residential treatment — especially one that works toward independent living — vocational training, recreation and development of interests and abilities,” she added.

Without help from mental health services, people can develop a feeling that the world is against them and they are a failure, Compton said.

Persuading a person to seek help can be a challenge. A student might be afraid to address the issue with another student who might need help. In that situation, Newland said, the student should tell a trusted adult of their concerns. The adult then can speak with the youth in question about the need to get help.

Coping with grief

While the Connecticut shooting highlights the need to recognize troubling behaviors in people who might be suffering from mental illness, it also highlights the need to help adults and students cope with grief.

Adults need to remain calm, Newland said, so they can help children regain a sense of safety. That’s because the children could be scared or sad.

Explaining events or answering questions in age-appropriate ways also is important, Newland said, so children can comprehend what has happened.

Possibly most important, parents need to give children extra support and reassurance and make time to listen to them, Newland added.

Compton said The National Center for Child Trauma, which was at IUPUC about two months ago for a training program, offered the following tips for adults to help children through traumatic events, such as the Connecticut school shooting:

  • Limit the amount of TV coverage young children watch. Young children may not understand the coverage is of one community, and not happening in many places, and possibly their hometown.
  • Refocus children into their comfort zone and do not linger on the continuing pictures or news. This exposure to media, family conversation and public conversation can increase a lasting negative effect from the tragedy.
  • Ask your child to describe what they think happened in their own words. Children might want to know only a few simple facts. Be careful not to share more than they want to know.
  • Assure your children that you will do everything in your power to make sure they are safe and protected from harm. Tell children that neighbors and friends want to protect each other and this is an important part of the school and community.
  • Families should talk about how much they love and care for each other.

Warning signs

  • Loss of temper on a daily basis
  • Frequent physical fighting
  •  Significant vandalism or property damage
  • Increase in use of drugs and alcohol
  • Increase in risk-taking behaviors
  • Carrying a weapon
  • Enjoying hurting animals
  • Detailed plans to commit acts of violence
  • Threatening others regularly
  • Displaying feelings of being alone or bullied
  • History of violent and overly aggressive behavior
  • Fascination with guns
  • Poor school performance
  • History of disciplinary problems
  • Constantly feeling disrespected
  • Failing to acknowledge feelings or rights of other people
  • Source: Melissa Newland, clinical services coordinator and therapist at Centerstone Indiana in Columbus.

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