Tragedy in Newtown: A Chance for Us All to Play a Role in Prevention

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By Sister Catherine Waters, Ph.D., O.P. professor of counseling at Caldwell University and a New Jersey licensed psychologist.

The tragedy in Newtown can make us more aware of our role in prevention.

I recently saw an interview on “CBS This Morning” with Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical School, in which he describes the characteristics of people most likely to be at risk for committing the kind of violence that occurred in Newtown.

Dr. Lieberman suggested that aside from those suffering from a deranged psychosis, who may be delusional and feel that they “have to” do it, there are others with a limited range of emotionality who experience uncontrollable rage in circumstances that most people, even if angry or upset, would find ways to deal with. In either case, they tend to be persons without the resources for restraint.

Mental health professionals know that generally, long before the moment of tragedy, these individuals will have given signs of their limitations. Previous (smaller) acts of violence, violent or threatening communication, either in writing or verbally, sometimes coupled with drug or alcohol use, a fascination with violence, or a pattern suggesting an inability to restrain themselves in stressful situations, are signs that all is not well.

When we become aware of these patterns—experts call this pathway behavior—any of us can alert someone who can help. That might be a responsible person in a school or workplace, a family member, or if urgent, a police agency. We don’t need to, nor are we able to, judge the risk absolutely, but we can care enough to take the opportunity to perhaps prevent a dangerous situation.

On a broader scale, all of us can consider advocating for better and more predictable mental health services for our friends, neighbors and relatives who may be struggling with emotional challenges. All of them are somebody’s children. Advocacy on behalf of a whole range of issues related to mental illness includes poverty prevention, housing rights for the homeless, and patients’ rights. They are actions on behalf of all of us. This can be accomplished by garnering media attention to such concerns, communication with elected officials or through the legal system.  In this season of blessings, this could be our gift to the world, or at least our little corner of it.

Who of us wouldn’t like to have had the chance to prevent the events of last Friday—if only we had known?

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