Experts examine role of mental health in wake of tragedy

Published On: Dec 17 2012 06:24:15 PM CST   Updated On: Dec 17 2012 07:06:48 PM CST

The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary has people across the country looking for answers.

One area of focus is how we deal with mental health issues in our communities.

It is currently unknown what mental health issues the shooter in this case, Adam Lanza, may have had.

What's clear is something set him off.

It's touching off a discussion about mental health -- how we think about it and how we talk about it, especially in front of young people.

When Ryan Kraft was a teenager, he was asked to baby-sit his next-door-neighbor.

His name was Adam Lanza.

Adam's mom had an unusual request.

"His mom, Nancy, had always instructed me to keep an eye on him at all times, to never turn my back, or even go to the bathroom or anything like that," said Kraft.

These may have been clues that something was wrong early on, leading some to question how society approaches the issue of mental health.

Medical College of Wisconsin Professor Stephen Hargarten said we should start by responding to mass shootings as a public health concern.

"When you have a disease outbreak of a virus infecting communities and causing significant illness and death, you have a response -- that's multiple sectors -- looking at what happened, how you can prevent this from occurring," said Hargarten.

He said one important part of that is figuring out how the issue of mental health plays into these tragedies.

"That is so challenging for us to recognize, when an individual is in a risk situation to harm themselves or others. And we need to have thoughtful restrictors and other leaders from a variety of sectors to better understand how we can identify these individuals who we need to get into therapy," said Hargarten.

Child psychologist Erin Millard said the first step to breaking down barriers to mental health care is erasing the stigma associated with it.

"Children learn a lot about what's acceptable based on the responses they receive from others. A couple of ways we can help kids discuss mental health concerns is modeling for them and showing them that we're OK having the conversations ourselves, and also responding to them in a nonjudgmental way if they are bringing up mental health concerns," said Millard.

Millard said parents may want to bring up the issue of mental health care concerns with their children if they notice changes in their behavior or mood, irritability or if they're having problems at school or with friends.

However, few children who show those behaviors will actually become violent. And sometimes there just aren't any obvious red flags for a person who could end up lashing out.

According to online publication Mother Jones, more than 60 percent of the shooters in mass killings in the past 30 years displayed signs of mental health issues prior to their crimes.