A Response to the Tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut

From the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services
Bureau of Children’s Behavioral Health Services

While the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut leaves all of us shaken and sad, we need to recommit ourselves to doing all we can.  Not only do we need to work to prevent something like this from happening again, but we also need to provide support and assistance to those who are experiencing distress at this time, especially children and families.  And always, we need to be mindful of the support children and their families need when someone in the family struggles with behavioral health concerns so people don’t feel alone and isolated.  

First, this incident highlights the need to redouble our efforts to meet the needs of those suffering from mental illness and their families. We have a strong children’s mental health system in Pennsylvania, but we also know that there are times when youth and families who need help fall through the cracks. We need to lessen the stigma that many children and families feel when they are experiencing mental health problems. Current efforts to make mental health treatment available in both primary medical care practices and in public schools must be supported and expanded.

When children and youth and their families seek treatment from mental health facilities directly, it is essential that they feel welcomed and respected, and that professionals support their decision to seek help and work to engage them. We must also remember that every child has unique interests and strengths, and every child needs positive attention and validation. Parents, mental health professionals, teachers, and other caring adults can encourage children and youth to become involved in community activities or pursue a special interest. Youth who have overcome adversity repeatedly tell us that positive relationships with adults and peers and the discovery of something personally meaningful have helped make the difference.  We also need to acknowledge that families need support and encouragement when they reach out for help for their children.  

Second, we need to take care of each other during this time of special stress and confusion. Of critical importance, is the need to openly communicate with our children about the tragedies that have occurred.  There are multiple resources available that provide helpful tips on how to talk to children and how to respond to disaster and stress in ways that help to build resilience. Below are several recommended resources.

The following are resources prepared by children's bureau consultants:

Child Mind Institute:
The Connecticut School Shooting: How to Help Children Cope with Frightening News

  • http://www.childmind.org/en/posts/articles/2011-12-27-helping-your-child-cope-deaths-friends

Going Back to School after a Tragedy: Support and Routine are Essential

  • http://www.childmind.org/en/posts/articles/2012-12-16-going-back-school-after-tragedy

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

Disaster Distress (click on first circle under rotating photos)

  • http://disasterdistress.samhsa.gov/

Coping with Violence and Traumatic Events

  • http://www.samhsa.gov/trauma/?from=carousel&position=1&date=12142012

Finally, we encourage community leaders to promote training in Mental Health First Aid, and Youth Mental Health First Aid. These trainings are available in many areas in Pennsylvania, and represent a way that caring citizens can learn how to support others who are struggling with mental health challenges. We need to recognize that, regardless of how children and youth may present themselves, they all need a sense of connection to other people.

It is not just infants who need human connection to grow, remain safe, and thrive. This is true for all of us.

More information about Mental Health First Aid - http://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/. Information about upcoming training in Pennsylvania on Youth Mental Health First Aid, sponsored by the PA Community Providers Association:

  • General information - http://www.paproviders.org/Pages/Training/Youth_MHFA_101712.shtml
  • Training dates and registration information - http://www.paproviders.org/Pages/Training/Youth_MHFA_111212.shtml
  • Information for families is available from Pennsylvania Families, Incorporated: PA Families Inc - http://pafamiliesinc.com/about.php