In a Society of Pointing Fingers, I offer A Message of unity, optimism, and hope.
I’m a mother and a strong advocate for mental health education. I lost my brother to suicide 6 years ago, and since then, it’s been the mission of my twin sister and I, to raise awareness for mental health education. I want to discuss this egregious tragedy in Parkland, Florida, and I hope that I can shed some light during this dark time in our country.
I have 3 precious children, and my heart broke three weeks ago, on February 14, 2018, when I heard the news that 17 people were killed in a high school.
After deep reflection, and a discussion with LRJ Foundation’s Director of Curriculum & Outreach, Dana Fortunato- I want to deliver a message of unity, optimism, and hope. I want to take this opportunity to bring us together as a community, and if you agree with my message, I humbly ask that you please help spread the word. Let’s work together and make a real difference.
I’ll briefly touch on 5 points:
1. If you see something, SAY something:
We’ve been told this over-and-over again. I cannot emphasize this point enough. If you notice a person is a threat to themselves or others, please tell a teacher, a police officer, a pastor, a neighbor, and/or a parent. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Don’t be afraid to call this number. If you notice something not quite right about a fellow student or member of your community, please say something. Remember, prevention is a better outcome than intervention. During a recent Wellness Matters presentation, mental health Presenter Sylvan Panu recently spoke to 9th grade students on bullying, being a bystander, and not being afraid to reach out for help when you see something that is not quite right. Sylvan assured the students, “they have the power to make a difference.”
Allow me the opportunity to demonstrate one powerful example bout the importance of the motto, “If you see something, say something”. Catherine Katsel-O’Connor called the police about her grandson on Tuesday, February 13, 2018. Police say the grandmother stopped her grandson from committing a similar crime to the one in Parkland. Many lives in Everett, Washington were literally saved, because of the action of a courageous grandmother, who at a minimum saved her grandson from committing a potentially devastating act. She’s a hero.
2. End the stigma:
There is a stigma with mental illness that precludes people from getting the help they need. Studies say those suffering from mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence, as opposed to being the perpetrators of violence, and we must therefore be careful in addressing mental illness and violent behavior. We already have a stigma around mental illness in our society, and my concern is that the stigma will become bigger. We must do everything in our power to end the stigma. We must instill in our kids the idea that there is absolutely zero shame in getting help for mental illness. We must do this for adults, also.
In addressing this event, Christine DeSousa, LRJ’s Lead Presenter and Curriculum Advisor said, “I believe that as a team, we can stay focused on positive coping, we should stick to the facts and what we know.” How do we end the stigma? Through mental health education in our local schools and communities that empowers our youth to take action and seek help without being ashamed.
3. Stop rewarding bad behavior:
I implore the media from publishing or publicizing names or faces of gunmen in mass shootings. Many mass murderers do this (among other reasons) for the infamy & notoriety. We as a society must NEVER give it to them. Psychologists on the subject say that many identify with other shooters, and want to copy them. The name of the shooter in FL has been mentioned more times than the MVP of the Super Bowl. Furthermore, many children (and some adults) couldn’t tell you the name of the Vice President, the Secretary of State, their governor, mayor, or member of congress, yet they’d easily recognize both the name and face of the Douglas Stoneman shooter. We need to stop glorifying this despicable behavior. In a recent Kentucky HS shooting, the media did NOT release the shooter’s name nor photo. That’s exactly how every mass shooting should be treated. In our line of work, safe messaging is very important and can make a difference- it can save lives. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center has Safe and Effective guidelines for public awareness. This should be the focus of all public reporting’s of tragic incidences. Let’s focus on the victims, their families, and on prevention.
We need to teach our kids how to not only love each other, but also how to counter bullying, how to transfer anger more positively, and not let our emotions get the better of us. We have a serious problem with bullying in our schools. We need to educate children and adults on how to properly address bullying at home and in school. We can accomplish this via an increase in mental health education. The lives and well-being of our children depend on it.
Your life matters. Be kind to yourself. Exercise daily, get more sleep, eat healthier, and use your energy in creative ways. Express your feelings through science, art, music, sports, etc. Get involved in social groups; don’t be afraid to befriend someone new. You never know the impact they can have on your life, or the impact you can have on theirs. Learn how to be proactive in overcoming adversity. Learn to embrace resilience and empathy, which like muscles, need to be exercised, in order to get stronger. Our children model much of our behavior. Let’s improve ourselves, so we can set the best example for our children.
I’ll conclude on a personal note. Recently, someone asked me how I cope with losing my brother to suicide. My answer: I live with the pain of losing my brother day-by-day. I live with it. It’s part of my life. There’s not a single day that goes by where I don’t think about the demise of my brother. It’s not something that I can hide from. Of course it’s a struggle. Despite the personal pain, I use this as an opportunity to try to make the world a better place, to help those struggling with depression, domestic violence, PTSD, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, etc. The loss of my brother, as tragic as it was, brought me the opportunity to touch so many lives. It’s become my reason why. I will continue to have a VOICE, and I won’t stop fighting. Our voice is powerful. I want my voice to make an impact.
We must honor the victims by having an honest dialogue about the mental health crisis in our society. Then, we must have the courage to do something about it by identifying the root cause of the problem. We continue to disguise our nation’s mental health problem with politicized debates that distract and divide us. Many are frustrated and want change, as they feel gun violence is plaguing our schools. Your voice matters, and the message here is that we all want long term changes in our schools. Walking out of schools is a well-intended but soon forgotten statement that will not ignite change. Wouldn’t an open conversation in every single school on these five points empower our youth and teachers? Let’s start a conversation in our local schools. The first step in solving a problem is identifying the problem. Communication is imperative. Lastly, we must be committed to act, so what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School three weeks ago, never happens again.
Executive Director/ Co-Founder
LRJ Foundation- Mental Health & Wellness Educational Programming