Opinion: To prevent school shootings, can mental health be taught?

Less than two weeks ago, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior Emma Gonzalez delivered what amounts to a post-millennial rebuke to every preceding American generation for failing to protect her and her peers. She spoke out against our overly permissive gun laws, the corporate interests that maintain them and the cultural affiliations that make many of us reluctant to accept change.

As Gen-Xers, our thoughts went back to Columbine, our flashbulb memory of the first mass school shooting in our lifetimes. As we’ve been forced to bear witness over the years, we see similar circumstances playing out: a marginalized student (or former student) with a troubled past or a resentment commits a heinous act.

Lethal power means restriction matters. If 91 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm are fatal, but only 8 percent without a firearm are fatal, think of the lives saved and tragedies averted from implementing common-sense gun restrictions. Imagine the proportionate decrease for homicide attempts.

Yet time after time, we watch mass shootings lead to a call for government action, and time after time the government does nothing. This time, high school students who’d just survived a shooting at their own school boarded buses to Tallahassee and watched as their state legislature refused to reconsider a ban on assault rifles like the one that killed their friends a week before.

Mental health care access also matters. Governments should fund more robust school counseling programs so that students get care long before their feelings of despair and isolation metastasize into violence. But meeting that need will involve cumbersome debates, rebudgeting and hiring. All of that takes time.

Meanwhile, our efforts to address mental health in school have limitations. Researchers who study the impact of mental illness stigma have found that students identified as needing mental health services sometimes find that their friends then avoid them, their family members pity and distrust them, and their teachers fear them and underestimate their abilities.

So while we wait for governments to restrict access to guns and increase access to effective mental health care, what can teachers do?

If we have taken anything away from Parkland, it’s that we no longer have the luxury of delegating the care of our most marginalized students to what passes for community mental health. Nor can we siphon off responsibility to providers in our schools — guidance counselors, psychologists, and social workers — or to contexts like advisory or health class that don’t command the same respect or rigor from our students. Teachers might fear exploring mental health, a province we’re told isn’t ours. But apart from parents, who knows kids better than teachers?

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No other profession is better placed to gain the trust of a student in crisis, or a student who might come forward about a struggling peer. Who is better placed than a teacher to organize a student’s environment and be a source of consistent support? Our lives may depend on our willingness to brave the shoals of the distressed and the defeated, the socially ostracized and the academically remedial.

As teachers, we can decide to make school more than a place where students learn the skills to cleverly navigate the internet for the purpose of acquiring high-powered weapons. Or making homemade munitions, as in the case of the Columbine murderers. Even obtaining the capital, locating suppliers and identifying safe storage requires, in the darkest way, what we might call initiative, problem solving, creativity and attention to detail. When we teach such “21st century skills” and traditional academic knowledge, what are we helping students use it for?

Is the only purpose of school “to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to take credit bearing introductory courses in two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce,” or can school also become a place where students learn how they want to treat themselves, each other, and their world?

Emma Gonzalez’s speech was so moving not only because she had her facts correct and made sound arguments, but because at the worst moment in her school’s history, she took charge of her learning and her life.

Maybe an important element of preventing violence and suicide is empowering all students to make their lives meaningful, in and beyond school. Maybe if students learn how to accept feelings of frustration, fear and embarrassment, they won’t need to avoid those feelings by hurting themselves or someone else.

As teachers, we can ask ourselves these questions:

  • Who at school is empowered and why?
  • In what contexts at school are students choosing actions consistent with their values?
  • In what contexts are students struggling to find meaning and fulfillment?
  • How can we use our academic classes as opportunities for students to explore and enact their values?
  • Who is most marginalized, and how can we help them reconnect with their families, peers and teachers?
  • What further support do students need, and how can we help them get it?

So on March 14, when we walk out, we are putting legislators on notice that they’d better make restricting access to firearms their immediate priority. When we walk back in, we can step up to a role where we are choosing to measure ourselves not only by the academic and athletic achievements of students who already feel successful, but also by the extent to which all students turn school into a source of meaning and vitality.

The PBS NewsHour’s Teachers’ Lounge blog, written by teachers or school-related staff, gives the public a glimpse into how current events affect life inside schools. Sign up for the PBS NewsHour Education mailer here.