|Dear Mr. President: Help Us Make Right Something So Wrong|
Thought for the day: This should be my thought for the year & not the day, since it will take much longer to make this dream happen than just a day. In my new children's book, When Bad Things Happen to Children, there is a verse which says, "When bad things happen, we must think hard and long. We'll try to make right of something so wrong." The process of making things right will take effort from people from around the country. Barack Obama has started the process, first by addressing the families & sharing his sadness for the world to see. He then started the next phase by putting in rapid motion, what I hope will be better gun control laws across the nation. However, to make something right of something so wrong will take additional efforts on multiple levels. I decided to write a letter to the president & would love for you to send your versions & suggestions along to him as well. The more parents, teachers & concerned citizens write to their senators, congressmen & the President, the more chance we have to insure that the lives lost in Newtown were not in vain. So here is my letter to the president. Feel free to forward it to anyone you think may be able to help.
Dear Mr. President,
First, let me introduce myself. My name is Dr. Barbara Lavi. I am a psychologist, licensed in both CT and MA. I began my career in Israel where one of my areas of expertise was helping children & families cope with the perils of war & terrorism. Since returning to the United States, whenever traumatic events occur, I find my expertise jumps into action like a knee jerk reaction. However, I also know that the impact of trauma does not disappear when the news about the events dies down. I may be the only therapist in the United States who routinely asks new clients how 9/11 impacted on them & their families. I use this information in developing a treatment plan & often find that the events have impacted on clients' current dilemmas.
The recent tragedy in Newtown sent me into crisis intervention mode right away, since I live & work in Weston CT. I went to corporations impacted by the tragedy in Stamford & Danbury CT. I volunteered to do EMDR with survivors and to speak on radio talk shows on how to help children cope with the horrendous events targeting children. It prompted me to write & offer a free download of a children's book, When Bad Things Happen to Children, with a guide for parents & teachers to help them air their feelings & ask questions about what happened. All of this was my gut reaction to what had occurred. I wanted to give parents & children a sense of control by helping them express their feelings & find ways to do something to help them cope with the tragedy. I thought that I was doing enough to help.
However, today I am writing to you because I know that what I am doing is not enough. I need your help as do all the parents, teachers & concerned citizens of this great country. I applaud your ability to show your tears & model that it is appropriate for everyone to show their sorrow when bad things happen. I also am encouraged by your promise to make rapid changes in the gun control laws around the nation. However, I am concerned that this too is not enough.
I congratulate you on hopefully averting the fiscal cliff which was lurking & threatening this country; however there is an educational, mental health cliff that is equally, if not more threatening to our nation. This cliff requires the same kind of concerted, bipartisan effort by senators, congressmen & all our citizens. The tragedies in Newtown, Aurora, Michigan, Columbine & too many others are symptomatic of this invisible cliff. My experience as a psychologist in Israel may offer some ideas to help with these urgent issues.
In Israel, there is one Ministry of Education which sets the guidelines for the entire nation's school system. Since Israel has been under attack since it's inception, they have had to confront traumatic issues that impact on children head on year round. Home room teachers don't just check attendance. They are also the children's touch point for all social issues that arise. They teach a class called, "Chevrah," which happens a few times a week with the homeroom class (which remains virtually the same through out each of the school experiences, elementary, middle & high school). The best translation for the word "Chevrah" is social studies, but it is more than that. When bad things happen, in the social relationships of the students, in the news or in their homes, there is a built in safety net where the students & teachers are already comfortable talking about tough events. In the USA, when a tragedy occurs, each school reacts, calls in psychologists & counselors who do crisis interventions & then disappear from the school. This is simply not enough.
In addition, counselors & teachers are burdened with academic testing results & have little time to address the mental & social health of their students. The ratio of students to counselors in our schools must be examined if they are going to be able to preform their jobs and help children cope with family, social as well as academic pressures. In Florida, this concern is being addressed by considering new legislation. Republican State Sen. Nancy Detert filed a bill this week that would require most of the state’s school districts to hire more guidance counselors, based on the number of students at each school. State Senator Detert says, “We don’t have enough guidance counselors to deal with the personal problems of the kids, the family problems at home — let alone helping them get into college.” The same problem exists across the nation.
Another pressing problem that is symptomatic of the social, mental health cliff is that bullying is running rampant in our schools. Although most school administrators will say they are handling the problem with zero tolerance policies, not only are these policies ineffective in treating the problem, they may also be exacerbating it. Like disgruntled employees who come back to the workplace where they have been fired & do harm to their old boss or co-workers, students expelled from school may become future attackers. Schools need ongoing, comprehensive programs that include training for parents, teachers & the broader community. These programs must help the bullies and the victims if we are to improve the situation in our society.
Another major area that needs to be addressed is access to care and early intervention for mentally ill children and young adults. Currently, parents of special needs students must fight for the therapeutic programs for their children due to budgetary constraints. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness reports that, "Half of all chronic serious mental illness begins by age 14, three-quarters by age 24. Despite effective treatment, most youth go without. Screening, assessment and early intervention of mental health conditions for children and youth should be an integral part of health care delivery systems." There are far too few home and community based services for mentally ill adults around the country. By under serving this population, we may be spawning the increase in acts of violence by the mentally ill in our nation. Perhaps with ObamaCare some of the mental health services of the special needs students and adults will be better addressed.
Television, movies & violent video games also play a part in the increase in violent behaviors. Eugene V Beresin, M.D., Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Training at the Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital, addresses the impact of violence in the media on children and adolescents. He reports that, "The typical American child will view more than 200,000 acts of violence, including more than 16,000 murders before age 18. Television programs display 812 violent acts per hour; children's programming, particularly cartoons, displays up to 20 violent acts hourly." He voices concern about the impact of such violence on young children who not only are taught that violence is a "cool" means of conflict resolution, but also desensitized to violence seeing it, "as a fact of life and, over time, lose their ability to empathize with both the victim and the victimizer."
Freedom of speech did not include media representing terror in more & more realistic ways to highly suggestible children or mentally ill adults, which make violence seem unreal or an acceptable path to follow when angry. When I spoke with young adults in CT following the attacks, many of them said, things like, "I'm fine. I'm used to these kind of things, like 9/11." We must not let our youth become numb to these kinds of assaults on human beings.
As the President of our country, I call on you lead our country to address each of these important issues. Hopefully, together we will develop laws, guidelines, private sector programs that can help fund innovative programs to address the educational, mental health cliff. There are many wonderful programs, however, each community is trying to reinvent the wheel leading to wasted energy & resources. By bringing together, educators, psychologists, psychiatrists, businessmen, Nonprofit organizations, lawyers, philanthropists, law makers, creative thought leaders to come up with programs & guidelines, hopefully, we will find ways to make right of something so wrong & not let any more innocent lives be lost in vain.
Barbara Lavi, PsyD