How to Prevent Another Sandy Hook

 

Dr. Steven Girelli is president and CEO of Klingberg Family Centers in New Britain, Conn. He also sits on Youth Catalytics’ Board of Directors. Following is a transcript of a speech he gave at a Feb.21 conference in Connecticut that considered legislative action that could make the country safer from gun violence. Vice President Joe Biden was in attendance.

Dr. Steve Girelli, right, at a recent panel discussion in Connecticut on gun violence and mental health. Vice President Joe Biden was in attendance.

Let me first thank Senators Murphy and Blumenthal and Representative Esty for organizing this conference and Western Connecticut State University for hosting it. My name is Dr. Steven Girelli. I’m the President and CEO of Klingberg Family Centers, and I’m speaking today at the request of my friend and colleague, Nelba Marquez-Greene. Nelba is the Coordinator of the Family Therapy Institute, a joint program of Klingberg Family Centers and Central Connecticut State University. Nelba’s precious daughter Ana was killed at Sandy Hook on December 14th. Let me again and publicly offer my condolences to Nelba and her family. And my condolences to the other 25 families who tragically lost loved ones on that day and to those youth and families who face the threat of gun violence on a daily basis, especially in our urban communities.

I hope to bring to this discussion a perspective borne of working with troubled youth, many of whose lives have been impacted by hostile surroundings, poverty, heart-wrenching traumas, and multigenerational struggles. I have seen the resilience of such youth and families in my work at Klingberg Family Centers. With skillful support they can become successful and productive citizens.

I applaud the fact that the national debate about gun violence has been expanded to include the importance of improving our mental health delivery system for children and families. But I also offer a cautionary note. In the wake of Sandy Hook, I worry that we will demonize those who suffer from mental illness. I hear stories from parents who fear for the acceptance and well-being of their children who may be viewed as prone to violence by virtue of their mental illness. In fact, the vast majority of those we serve are at no greater risk for violence than those of us in this room. I urge that in our striving to solve the national crisis in gun violence, we do not make the mistake of seeing demons in every mental health clinic, psychiatric bed, and special education classroom. To do so would only create of them a different kind of victim.

The combination of trauma and social isolation is a particularly toxic mixture, because the antidote for the long-term effects of trauma is found within the context of healthy relationships.Let me tell you a bit about the youth we serve at Klingberg Family Centers who are at the greatest risk for long-term, debilitating mental illness and in some cases violent outcomes. The vast majority are those who have been emotionally disconnected from family and community, disenfranchised, and marginalized in their relationships. They are the ones who exist on the social fringes, never seeming to quite fit in, often passing through schools unnoticed. Many of the youth we serve also have suffered significant trauma, the aftermath of which leaves them anxious, depressed, distrusting, and overwhelmed. The combination of trauma and social isolation is a particularly toxic mixture, because the antidote for the long-term effects of trauma is found within the context of healthy relationships.

In view of these observations I offer some suggestions.

First, early identification of those children at risk either by virtue of their trauma experiences or socially isolating circumstances is critical. Schools, daycare settings, pediatricians, clergy, and health clinics have been at the vanguard of identifying at-risk children. But they need better training, greater coordination, and more resources available for children whom they identify at risk. It is vitally important that all professionals working with children and youth have well-developed skills in identifying trauma symptoms.

We also need to make our mental health services more inviting to families. Many parents are wary about seeking services for their children for a variety of reasons, including social stigma, fear that seeking services might lead to accusations of abuse/neglect, and their own sometimes troublesome encounters with the system. Other obstacles include access issues related to cost, geography, transportation, and long waiting lists. Federal resources should be dedicated to improving service accessibility and to promoting among practitioners the use of well-developed family engagement strategies. These would greatly improve utilization of mental health services by the families most in need of them. In fact, these very same family engagement skills are critical in all of our interactions with families, whether they be in our schools, churches, courtrooms, or communities.

In social and mental health services we need to continue to broaden our focus from the individual child to the entire family, often the extended family. And we need to insure that mental health professionals are highly skilled in trauma treatment. Federal funds to promote broader access to training in family therapy and trauma care by professionals are critical.

In order to adequately address the needs of disenfranchised and traumatized youth, we need to strengthen families through expansion of community resources. For example, we need to offer training in parenting skills to families whose own upbringing left them ill-equipped to be effective parents; we need to increase fatherhood initiatives to improve the role of young fathers who often were disconnected from their own fathers; we need schools whose functions go beyond traditional education to engage the entire family, including more school-based clinics that can address mental health as well as physical health needs; and we need to promote integration among all of the systems and individuals who interface with the families of children at risk. All of these improvements would benefit from effective national policy and targeted funding.

 

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