The Newtown Tragedy and the Stigma of Mental Illness

I am hoping we will direct our energies to looking at how well we are meeting the needs of the individuals in our community.


One month after the catastrophic loss of life in Newtown, I watch with apprehension as media attention shifts from universal compassion to polarizing politics and blame. While we continue to struggle to comprehend violence and loss of this magnitude, as a mental health professional I am hoping we will direct our energies to looking at how well we are meeting the needs of the individuals in our community who suffer in isolation from mental illness and traumatic life circumstances, and commit to working together to increase access to effective, comprehensive mental health diagnostic and treatment services.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the discourse surrounding this tragedy feeds the stigma of mental illness and furthers the misconception that people who struggle with mental illness, or those who seek mental health treatment, are to be feared. This has the unfortunate consequence of increasing community risk and individual suffering, as those in need become reluctant to seek professional mental health services.

The National Alliance for Mental Health’s former Director, Thomas Insel, noted “Most people with serious mental illness are not violent, and most violent acts are not committed by people with serious mental illness. The most common form of violence associated with mental illness is not against others, but rather, against oneself.” Nationally, one in five children has a diagnosable mental disorder. According to the 2011 Connecticut School Health Survey, 25% of students reported being depressed during the past year, and nearly 7% reported having attempted suicide. Last year, of the more than 2,000 local children referred to the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut, over 485 had attempted or threatened suicide; 333 were the victims of abuse or neglect, and 214 were bullied.

Mental health is interconnected with all aspects of a child’s well-being, healthy functioning and development. When children who are struggling do not get needed mental health care, physical health is threatened, learning is compromised, family life may be shattered and childhood is derailed.. Repeated exposure to violence, difficult life circumstances, loss of a parent or other person significant in a child’s life intensifies emotional suffering. Together these challenges can lead to difficulties in peer relationships and increase isolation and hopelessness, eroding a youngster’s ability to tolerate frustration and to manage angry feelings. Fortunately, with effective mental health intervention and treatment, risks are reduced and youngsters are far less likely to engage in self destructive or violent behavior and far more likely to become engaged, productive members of society.

As we try to learn from Sandy Hook, it is crucial that we focus on the importance of early identification and prevention as part of the solution. Despite limited resources, as a community, we continue to make progress as public and private agencies, health and mental health professionals, schools, police, and child protective services staff increasingly work in collaboration in our community. In the days following the tragedy at Sandy Hook, members of the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut’s crisis team, joined mental health professionals from across the state in a coordinated effort to provide help in Newtown.

In Connecticut the Department of Children and Families, in collaboration with community partners, has made great strides in improving access for children and teens to community based professional mental health services. In an emergency, anywhere in the state, you can dial 211 to be connected to a local Emergency Mobile Psychiatric Services team. The Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut provides this vital service in Stamford, Greenwich, Darien and New Canaan. But, please do not wait until it is an emergency to seek help. If you are concerned that your child is troubled, unhappy or anxious, or if you are interested in learning more about professional mental health services, please call the Child Guidance Center at (203) 324-6127.


Sherry Perlstein, MSW

President and CEO

Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut


For further information please contact Sherry Perlstein

During business hours 203 517-3319

After hours 203 940-5872


Thomas Paine January 21, 2013 at 01:01 PM
Sherry - Thank you to your and your organization for its work and you contribution here. Knowing that there are resources available is sometimes the difference between a good outcome and not. I thought this article, which tries to look at the confluence of mental illness and gun violence, provides a useful perspective: http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2013/01/17/the-invisible-trigger-mental-health-and-gun-violence/ It concludes: "President Obama gave a nod to mental health issues in his executive orders yesterday, but if we are serious about reducing the number of future incidents like the horror in Newtown, more needs to be done. (The mental health component of the package doesn’t appear to be particularly focused on the specific issue of violence.) This problem is going to be with us for a long time. There is no clean and quick solution. There won’t be one magic law or one golden policy that frees us from the specter of these tragedies. But making it harder for the deranged to get weapons, and making it easier for society to protect and treat people showing serious signs of dangerous mental disturbance is a step that we can and should take, regardless of what happens on the gun control front." Get services to those who need help in a timely manner, secure firearms or remove them from access by anyone suspected or diagnosed to be a risk to themselves or others and reduce the barriers facing professionals as they seek to make such assessments.
Ex Republican January 21, 2013 at 08:36 PM
This type of thing did not happen much when we had a slew of state mental hospitals. Probably no coorelation. Just saying...
Thomas Paine January 21, 2013 at 09:22 PM
Ex - Interesting screen name, I switched my voter registration to unaffiliated last week. Since you mention an interesting observation, we also did not have this type of killing outside of criminal activity back in the 1920s when civilian ownership of fully automatic weapons was not regulated. In fact, up through the early 1930s, the Sear Roebuck catalog offered the Thompson Submachine gun to anyone who wanted to order one through the mail. That changed after the St Valentines Day Massacre and the passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934 but we did not have rampage killings back then when machine guns were readily available. Something about our society has changed over the past three decades and it is not just the availability of firearms.
Jlo January 21, 2013 at 11:13 PM
Yes, our society is indeed changing. While overall firearms deaths are declining year over year we have definitely seen an uptick in mass shootings, many of which end with the shooter killing themselves. It should also be noticed that during the first assault weapons ban gun violence did not decline. We need to look beyond guns and magazines if we are going to actually make a difference. I suppose the logical connection is that violence breeds more violence due to copy cats trying to one up the last guy. However if even a small subsection of our populace feels that an acceptable way to leave their mark is by shooting up a school, mall, or house of worship then we have major issues.
Thomas Paine January 22, 2013 at 12:39 AM
If we are looking for correlations, consider that modern rampage shootings began to proliferate about the time that our modern cable TV industry became established. About the time that cable news networks were faced with the need to fill a 24 hours with news, 7 days a week 365 days per year, a thirst was create for increasingly sensational stories with which to draw viewers to justify advertising rates. I am not necessarily blasting the media for covering rampage shootings but the notoriety that such non-stop coverage offers is a strong draw for the deranged boy or man seeking to become famous, or infamous. I think it only a matter of time before a deranged shooter takes a break from shooting to call in to a news studio to explain "why" he was forced to kill innocents. If we could prevent the media from mentioning the names of rampage shooters, that would remove part of what drives them once they have reached the brink of sanity. But to do so would be a First Amendment attack....
Jlo January 22, 2013 at 02:27 AM
AZ- By opposing points of view I assume you mean in terms of gun control. The thing is, we've had guns in this country forever. Heck the AR-15 platform has been around since the 1950's, but these mass killings are something which have only really started in the past two decades, and are now beginning to accelerate. We've always had serial killers and such, but for them it was a game of cat and mouse, we now have a new breed that just wants to kill as many people as possible and then eat a bullet. They're making suicide a competitive sport...
Thomas Paine January 22, 2013 at 03:23 AM
Many of the early mass killings were executed against entire families or others that were in some way known. The Univ Texas Clock Tower sniper in 1966 was the first mass killing of pure strangers by firearm (in that case a bolt action hunting rifle). Whitman was a trained sniper which explains both his weapon choice and effectiveness. But that was in 1966 and there was some professional conclusion that Whitman's brain tumor could have been partly or fully to blame for his actions. The shooters from Columbine to present have not had brain imperfections, though many have been taking some sort of neurological prescription drug. AZ - It has taken a decade or two for us to get to this place and will take that long or longer to reverse the process, assuming we as a society have the wherewithal to really demand change. Unfortunately, that is a far more complicated process than just passing some "feel good" gun restrictions.
Thomas Paine January 22, 2013 at 03:24 AM
Jlo - Nothing subtle about your profile photo, is there? And not even "molon lane", just the pure English translation so that you leave not doubts. Radical man!
Thomas Paine January 22, 2013 at 03:50 AM
molon labe, not "lane" - darned autocorrect!
Thomas Paine January 22, 2013 at 04:33 AM
Someone just sent me this weekend interview with ex-NYPD chief Bratton. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323968304578246721614388346.html?mod=WSJ_hps_RIGHTUnderAd Here's the interesting bit discussing just how ineffective a renewed AWB and magazine capacity limit would be: "Mr. Bratton likes what he calls the "symbolism" of this agenda, but he's unsure if its enactment would make a substantive difference. "Its importance is that it is a motivator to keep people aware, concerned and involved," he says ..... "The good news is at least the issue is once again being discussed and being discussed seriously. As to what the ultimate outcome will be, it's anyone's guess." The problem with the gun and ammo bans, he offers, "is that that's going forward." They do nothing about the 350 million firearms, including assault weapons, and hundreds of thousands of extended clips already in circulation. "You can't deal with that retroactively." As for the practical effect of gun control, he notes that "all the studies that were done about assault weapons after the ban ended after 10 years were pretty much inconclusive." He says he'd support "anything that reduces the number of rounds in a clip." .... "Oftentimes it is in the changing of a clip that the opportunity presents itself for stopping. What's the right number—seven, 10, 15? Who knows? The right number is no bullets in the clip, but that's not going to happen." Sadly, he perpetuates the "delay" myth.
AZ January 22, 2013 at 02:20 PM
There have been mass killings throughout history. it is just we have the ability to communicate these events that makes it seem as if the degree of violence in society has changed for the worse. There are thousands of victims of gun violence each year and of those thousands nearly all barely get a nod. Sandy Hook has already faded away from our collective memories. The time where Sandy Hook could have been a seminal moment has passed.


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