In the wake of the recent Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Miami-Dade Public Schools are taking steps to more proactively assess and address potential mental illness issues in the student population. Since shooting incidents which occur at schools have been associated with mentally disturbed students, advocates of increased mental illness awareness and screening believe that recognizing those with psychological disturbances and providing help to them can assist with preventing future school violence.
Miami-Dade middle and high school staff will receive mental illness identification training. Starting in March, the school district will begin training each of its middle school and high school teachers as well as other school support staff to identify early-warning signs of mental illness through a program called “Typical or Troubled?” The program was created by the American Psychiatric Foundation as a response to the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado 14 years ago, and will be provided at no cost to the district. United Teachers of Dade President Karen Aronowitz praised the intentions of the program, but commented that “Trumpeting the start of yet another program is only noise unless appropriate and increased funding and education is provided by our state.”
While this program appears well-intentioned on the part of the Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Carvalho, the reality is that in virtually every case involving high profile school shootings the shooters had already been diagnosed and treated for mental health issues with psychiatric drugs. Adam Lanza, the alleged mass shooter in Connecticut had reportedly been diagnosed with Asperger’s Sydrome and received medication for his condition. The Columbine High and Aurora, Colorado shooters also were reported to have received care from psychiatrists who prescribed psychotropic drugs.
In a number of high-profile cases, the psychiatric drug use of shooters has been reported:
Kip Kinkel was withdrawing from Prozac and had been prescribed Ritalin when he murdered his mother and stepfather then shot 22 classmates, killing two, in 1998.
Christopher Pittman was withdrawing from Luvox and from Paxil when he killed his paternal grandparents in 2001.
Elizabeth Bush, who fired at fellow students in Williamsport, Pa., in 2001, wounding one, was on Prozac.
Jason Hoffman, was on Effexor and Celexa when he opened fire at his El Cajon, Calif., high school, wounding five.
Shawn Cooper of Notus, Idaho, was on antidepressants when he fired a shotgun on students and staff.
T.J. Solomon, on antidepressants, wounded six at his Conyers, Ga., high school.
Eric Harris was taking Luvox when he and fellow student Dylan Klebold participated in the killing of 12 students and a teacher and wounding of 24 others at Columbine High School in Colorado.
At Virginia Tech in 2007, where 32 were murdered, authorities found “prescription medications related to the treatment of psychological problems had been found among Mr. Cho’s effects,” according to the New York Times.
While people experiencing psychological distress need genuine support and enlightened care, merely giving them a diagnosis and pushing dangerous drugs on them to suppress their symptoms can actually push them over the edge or lead them to have a break from reality or disconnect from ordinary inhibitions and human empathy. Many critics of the modern mental health industry, such as psychiatrist and author Peter Breggin, M.D., have noted that common forms of mental health care may aggravate mental illness rather than promoting true recovery. The American Psychiatric Foundation, which created the “Typical or Troubled?” program to educate about mental illness, has a Corporate Advisory Council made up of pharmaceutical companies who help fund their activities. This is a conflict of interest which skews this educational effort toward promoting drugs as a mainline focus of mental health care while ignoring safer, more holistic interventions. Tragedies have been turned into a means for the pharmaceutical industry to promote their products, products which in actuality appear to be contributing to the violence rather than preventing it.
Thus, before focusing on mental health screening and awareness, those seeking to assist the mentally ill must identify more effective, holistic approaches to mental health treatment if they wish to get desirable results. Mind-body therapies for healing trauma, reducing stress, improving diet, nutrition, and lifestyle habits, fostering connection with social support and nature, and other safe resources need to be made available rather than visits to doctors whose prescriptions can harm the brain. Increasing awareness of a condition without having in place effective healing resources can add to a problem rather than alleviating it.