Aftermath of the Navy Yard Tragedy: Call for Early Intervention in Serious Emotional Illness

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HOUSTON, TX (September 19, 2013) – Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America mourns the loss of those killed during the horrendous tragedy on Monday in the Navy Yard.  We extend our deepest sympathy to families, loved ones, friends and all who are affected by this dreadful catastrophe.  Our thoughts, prayers and best wishes are with all those injured for a full recovery.  We are all deeply saddened by this extraordinarily horrific event.

The tragedy is another wakeup call for everyone. Details are emerging that Aaron Alexis clearly had serious psychiatric difficulties for some time. While several media reports suggest that he may have had a major mental disorder, the precise nature of what he might have had is still unclear. As details surrounding the tragedy continue to emerge, there are many potential lessons to be learned from this highly tragic event.

If Aaron had been experiencing a heart attack, he would have received immediate care, even if he denied he was having a heart attack (a common occurrence).  Aaron was experiencing an acute brain crisis.  Although the brain is the most important organ of the body, the individual in psychiatric crisis is not treated equitably as the person in cardiac crisis.  Yet, the outcome can be much more tragic.

It is important to dispel several myths that exist in public perceptions of mental illnesses. Anyone can develop a mental illness. Mental illnesses are extremely common. About half of all Americans will meet the criteria for some type of mental disorder sometime in their lifetime, with first onset usually in childhood or adolescence.  Mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorders are not a sign of weakness, but are real diseases of the brain. Delays in their treatment lead to a snowballing of suffering and decline in function. People cannot just “snap” out of mental illness; symptoms cannot be just wished away or controlled at will. Like in other medical illnesses, effective treatments are now available, both psychological and medical. Treatments can lead to recovery, facilitating productive lives. Timely assessment and adequate services for early symptoms go a long way toward preventing later, more serious problems.

Unfortunately, efforts to get Aaron Alexis help had been made but were not successful; the reasons perhaps will become clearer with time. It is time to take a serious look at the lack of public understanding of serious psychiatric illness in youth, glaring inadequacies in mental health care, as well as delays in care, often for many years. Most people with mental disorders in the United States remain either untreated or poorly treated. The mental health system in the U.S  is dangerously underfinanced and its infrastructure is crumbling  Many students with emotional difficulties on college campuses tend to not seek mental health services because of stigma attached to being diagnosed with a mental illness.

Negative portrayals of mental illness in the media are one major cause of stigma. Seriously mentally ill individuals can often put themselves or others in danger when they are acutely ill, and not in treatment. However, studies in general show that violence is actually no more prevalent overall among individuals with treated mental illness than the general public;  the mentally ill are in fact more likely to be victims of violence.

The emotional toll for the survivors of the massacre and the families of the victims is huge, and the loss is incalculable. The immediate response to provide prompt grief counseling is laudable.  Counseling to deal with the grief is critically needed in order to minimize long term negative consequences of the trauma.

In the aftermath of the Navy Yard tragedy, it is vital we emphasize the need for improving mental health services and early intervention for school and college campuses. There is no better antidote to stigma than education. Our high schools, colleges and universities need to be better educated about the signs of, and early detection for emotional disturbances, which can be nipped in the bud before they escalate into serious disasters. Proactive steps include disseminating mental health information at school orientation as well as training programs for staff, faculty, athletes, resident assistants, counseling services, faith-based organizations, sororities and fraternities and businesses. Mental Health centers need to be better staffed, and networked with state of the art capabilities of psychiatric diagnosis, preventive and therapeutic services. Improved access to treatment and civil commitment are necessary to provide relief of the individual suffering with a brain disorder and to decrease the risk of future tragedies.

 

Matcheri S. Keshavan M.D., Stanley Cobb Professor Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

 

Linda Stalters, MSN., Executive Director, Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America

Contact (240) 423-9432

APA Resources:

Disaster Psychiatry Resources:
1. “What to do Before, During, and After Disaster”
2. Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide
3. Skills for Psychological Recovery Field Operations Guide
4. “Grief Leadership”
5. “Restoring a Sense of Well-Being in Children After a Traumatic Event”
6. “Restoring a Sense of Safety in the Aftermath of a Mass Shooting”
7. “Fear Management”
8. “Coping with Anxiety During High-Risk Terrorist Alerts”

Other Resources:
Disaster Mental Health Resources from Other Organizations
– Links to Disaster Mental Health Organizations, both US and International

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