School Shootings, Mental Health Treatment, and Parents: Asking the Right Question

By Jen Griffis

Several years ago, I sat in the passenger seat on a chilly winter evening, my phone screen glowing in my hand as we headed to the treatment center. Our child had been displaying increasingly dangerous behaviors at home and – after a long struggle trying to convince professionals we needed help – was finally receiving intensive treatment. After reading a few articles about a recent school shooting, I set down my phone and took a deep breath, fear gripping my heart. What if that becomes our story? How do I keep that from being our story?

In my work supporting parents raising kids who struggle with extreme behavioral and emotional challenges, Ive found those fears an almost universal experience – especially when those kids have diagnosed or undiagnosed oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder. As parents, we know the intense challenges of our childs behavior at this moment. And we worry about how those behaviors may manifest themselves without appropriate treatment and support, especially as they head into the unpredictable teenage years. As parents struggle to navigate complex systems and access treatment, there is concern not only for their child but also for the safety of others.

This past week our country experienced another tragic school shooting. Education Week reports this is the 21st school shooting since August 1, 2021, and the deadliest school shooting since May 2018.” While shootings declined during the pandemic, the mental health needs of our youth increased. Our countrys youth are returning to in-person learning and bringing all of the intensity and uncertainty of the past two years.

There are undoubtedly some concerning details about this particular shooting. Concerns that are leading to important questions about policy and responsibility. There are mental health questions we should be asking questions too, but its essential to make sure we are asking the right questions so we can have the right conversations. Conversations that will help improve access to services and support collaboration between parents and the systems serving their children.

For those of us in the mental health space – whether were parents, providers, system administrators, researchers, or advocates – the question we should be asking is this: If parents in my state or community were told they needed to access mental health crisis treatment for their child within 48 hours, could they easily access it and would it be of sufficient quality to meet the need?”

According to the Oakland County website, residents of Oxford, Michigan have access to local resources for crisis intervention counseling. In this particular situation, it appears that immediate counseling could have been accessed. However, access to crisis mental health support regardless of insurance status is not consistently available across the country. Organizations such as Mental Health America and NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) track access to mental health care and report that 50-60% of youth with a mental health diagnosis fail to receive treatment. This data is consistent with the stories Ive heard from parents across the country and my personal experience navigating multiple state systems. Based on this information, accessing quality crisis treatment and assessment within 48 hours would likely not be available for the majority of youth in our country. And that fact should cause us concern.

Even if we address the gun control issues and encourage a higher level of parental responsibility, do we as a country have the infrastructure to intervene in these situations quickly and efficiently? The data – and the stories from parents – tell us that our current mental health structure is failing our children. There are systemic issues that need to be addressed immediately at the state and national levels.

But what can the rest of us do? If you know your state or community doesnt have the capacity to meet these needs and might struggle to intervene quickly enough to stop a crisis, how can you begin to make a difference?

If youre a parent navigating these systems while parenting a child with behavioral health needs, quickly report the system gaps when you find them. You can contact your state behavioral health authority and share your experiences. System designers need parents to share their struggles so they can identify the gaps and improve their systems.

If youre an administrator in a system or organization, find a parent – or better yet, a group of parents – and ask them if your system could practically support them in a crisis. Walkthrough Walk through a scenario with them and be willing to learn how your system impacts families, especially in a crisis. Be willing to accept that your system may not work the way you think it does and work together – with parents – to find ways to improve it.

If youre a provider or clinician, keep listening to and supporting parents. Encourage them to share their frustrations and system gaps with those who can help make changes. Make sure they know they arent alone. There is always hope and ways to find support – and to help improve broken systems.

My thoughts go out to all impacted by this most recent school shooting and all of the shootings our country has experienced in recent months. The problems surrounding this issue are complex. But asking the right question and having the right conversations will help us take steps to more effectively provide youth and parents the support they need to navigate a crisis – any crisis – with intention.

Jen Griffis lives in Anchorage, Alaska. She is an advisory board member of Psychopathy Is, a Doctor of Law and Policy student at Northeastern University, and a parent who has navigated mental health systems. Her business, Raising Superkids LLC, supports parents and systems working together to develop better policy solutions.