School safety depends on emotional health — and civil conversations

Santa Fe High School student Grace Johnson speaks during the third day of roundtable discussions on gun and school safety, held by Gov. Greg Abbott at the Capitol in Austin on May 24, 2018. Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Increasingly, Americans are struggling to come to the table for civil debate around important issues. Mistrust and fear run rampant, and we are exceedingly quick to villainize the “other.” When it comes to life-threatening issues like school safety, constituents are less and less hopeful that leaders will do their job in a manner that honors the will of the people they represent.

I recently joined a conversation that gave me a front row seat to my own internal misgivings around the dwindling possibilities for civil conversation. I came away humbled — and hopeful.

Because of my expertise in mental health and education, I was invited to take part in the second of three round table discussions convened by Gov. Greg Abbott in response to the Santa Fe High School shooting — the 101st mass shooting in our country this year. When you have an opportunity to support legislators trying to save children’s lives, you say yes, so it was a no brainer to get myself to Austin.

But as the meeting approached, I felt conflicted. I would be there to champion mental health awareness and intervention, which I feel strongly about — so strongly that I have devoted my career to them. But if preventing school shootings is the goal, the data suggests that when compared to our international peers, mental health is not the most important factor: The biggest differentiator is access to guns and the absence of effective gun control laws. Would focusing on mental health issues allow the group to sidestep more urgently needed reform? Would I be complicit in shifting the conversation in a misguided direction? I feared that the roundtable wouldn’t genuinely consider guns as part of the equation and would use mental health as an exit ramp, not a genuine lever.

At the same time, I found myself preoccupied with how long overdue Texas is in taking mental health seriously. On my way to Austin, I thought about how many lives we lose each year by mismanaging mental health — far more lives than are lost in school shootings. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, on average one person in Texas dies every three hours by suicide. If I and others are hyper-focused on gun safety, rather than mental health, do we lose an opportunity to promote mental health reform?

Despite my internal churn, I felt grateful to Gov. Abbott for his do-something leadership — a breath of fresh air in contrast to the cringe-worthy “thoughts and prayers” from other law makers.

As the session began, I quickly realized that for the most part, we were all pulling on the same rope and in the same direction, concentrating on keeping our schools and children safe. The conversation did not become a tug of war between mental health and gun safety; it became a productive and complex exchange of ideas. Every so often a comment would suck the oxygen out of the room, but for the most part there was an active camaraderie. I could guess the political leanings of those at the table and perhaps they could guess mine – but nothing about the conversation felt partisan.

As a therapist and specialist in social emotional health, one thing I know for sure is that we can’t develop the well-being of children without first developing the capacity to display strong mental health at the adult and community level. In that room, I saw a rock-solid example of adult social emotional health, where people with very different points of view stayed open and made way for the well-being of the community as a whole.

As the conversation progressed, participants put forth different topics for discussion, including supporting teachers, the role of technology in identifying threats and in spreading mental health resources, the critical need for mental health awareness and funding, and gun laws and enforcement that could save lives.

As I left that day, I found myself questioning the narrative that permeates the nation right now, the idea that we are more polarized than ever. Maybe we are, but maybe when we get in a room together and focus on what we want instead of what we fear, we have a lot more in common than we think.

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