Mental health professionals know that traumatic events occupy our minds, quite literally, in ways that can derail lives and stress families at their foundations. And when the trauma is as horrible and incomprehensible as the 12/14 shootings at the Sandy Hook School, the long-term impact on individuals, families, and even the community can be particularly acute. While Adam Lanza’s soul-searing crime has focused legislators and the political class on the issue of mental health interventions for emerging sociopaths, it is useful to remember that there are mental health problems that exist both as antecedents and consequences of violent crime. On either side of the equation, when these problems are downplayed or ignored altogether, we risk launching a legacy of dysfunction down the generations, where antecedents beget consequences and vice versa.
This week, the Board of Selectman met with Dr Jill Barron, a trauma mental health advisor, who has been retained by the town with the help of a $50,000 grant from Praxair, Inc of Danbury. She will help the town coordinate the mental health resources and services that have flowed into town since December. The goal is identify and address the mental health issues wherever they may reside, from the full-blown PTSD afflicting some first responders to the acting out and behavioral problems of children struggling with their fears and imaginations and the stresses and strains this places on marriages and families.
As Newtown’s Director of Health Donna Culbert noted this week, the close-knit nature of our community has transmitted the trauma of 12/14 throughout the town in ways that a less cohesive community might not experience. But she also pointed out that those same close connections provide a resilience that grows out of mutual awareness and care of the people living here. Newtowners look out for each other, and that vigilance often is the difference between acknowledging critical problems and letting them slide. It also helps identify and address nascent problems before they develop to the point where they require the kind of mental health interventions and treatments that are becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to procure.
As Dr Barron told the selectmen this week, this effort will require a long-term commitment from a full range of community institutions, including schools, social services, and spiritual communities. A consulting psychiatrist for the New York City Fire Department, she cautioned that the effects of this trauma will be with us for a long time, noting, “I’m still seeing first-time responders from 9/11 who have decided to seek help even this far out from the event.” But with care and commitment, day-by-day from now until however long it takes, Newtown can inherit a legacy, not of dysfunction or worse, but of health and recovery and better.