Commentary: Intervene early, invest in schools and services, to boost mental health

The recent wave of mass shootings has opened an important discussion: How do we go back to being a society in which this is a rare occurrence rather than a common one?

Many feel that controlling access to firearms is the answer. Statistics from other countries with stricter gun control laws support this viewpoint, with the United States ranking first among developed countries in firearm homicides, given our easier access.

Those who find this conclusion unacceptable counter that mass shootings stem primarily from mental health issues. Certainly, this view has some validity, as we can all agree that individuals who commit such violence are disturbed. But in terms of solutions, what would it mean to treat this primarily as a mental health issue? As a society, what should we be doing?

As practicing psychologists, we believe it falls on our profession to begin to frame an answer. Let’s start by defining these horrific acts as “anti-social,” since they tear at the fabric of our society, leaving behind broken hearts and minds. The opposite, which would represent our attempts at reducing this violence, can be characterized as “pro-social.”

When you engage in pro-social behavior, your goal is to benefit another person, to be of help. But there is a seeming paradox at the core of pro-social behavior: Why would someone impose costs on themselves to benefit others? Doesn’t this run counter to our culture’s dominant ethos of profit and individualism? Aren’t we naturally selfish, rather than giving?

Not at all. Research on pro-social behavior has demonstrated, from an early age, that we prefer people who are kind and helpful versus people who hinder and harm, and children will model themselves after those who have influence on them. The spectrum from selfishness to altruism emerges from both inherited tendencies and environmental influences. Much can be done, particularly at an early age, to foster pro-social behaviors.

Please note the emphasis on early childhood development. The sooner we intervene with children showing anti-social tendencies, the greater the impact. Research has shown elementary school teachers can significantly predict future adult offenders when the children are as young as 6. They recognize healthy behavior and have a close-up view of which children are struggling. Why would we waste this opportunity to intervene and provide support to disturbed children and their families, potentially avoiding tragedy?

That would mean making sure our schools become resource centers, adequately staffed with teachers, counselors and social workers, with proper funding for creative networks of outreach and care. At this point, the opposite is true: Education is woefully underfunded, particularly in our state (40th nationally in a 2021 report from the Education Law Center).

If the goal is to nurture mental health and pro-social behavior, we must shift from a negative view of active social service. Proper government funding is a necessary cornerstone, though programs need to not only inspire a new generation of teachers and counselors, but also inspire our citizenry into active volunteerism.

Our society should also foster help for our young adults by reinvigorating service organizations such as AmeriCorps, Job Corps and even the old Civilian Conservation Corps. Recent personality profiles done on young mass murderers makes clear that alternative placements, within well-staffed training programs, might have made a difference.

As mental health professionals, we know what is necessary to foster psychological well-being. If we are serious about addressing violence from the perspective of mental health, we must commit to cultivating the social and educational framework to generate pro-social behavior. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Let’s make sure our children are given what they need to help us create a safer and more compassionate society.

Poonam Sharma and Gary Whiting are licensed psychologists. Both work for a clinic that has been treating survivors of the Uvalde massacre.

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