The Newtown Tragedy and the Stigma of Mental Illness

I am hoping we will direct our energies to looking at how well we are meeting the needs of the individuals in our community.


One month after the catastrophic loss of life in Newtown, I watch with apprehension as media attention shifts from universal compassion to polarizing politics and blame. While we continue to struggle to comprehend violence and loss of this magnitude, as a mental health professional I am hoping we will direct our energies to looking at how well we are meeting the needs of the individuals in our community who suffer in isolation from mental illness and traumatic life circumstances, and commit to working together to increase access to effective, comprehensive mental health diagnostic and treatment services.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the discourse surrounding this tragedy feeds the stigma of mental illness and furthers the misconception that people who struggle with mental illness, or those who seek mental health treatment, are to be feared. This has the unfortunate consequence of increasing community risk and individual suffering, as those in need become reluctant to seek professional mental health services.

The National Alliance for Mental Health’s former Director, Thomas Insel, noted “Most people with serious mental illness are not violent, and most violent acts are not committed by people with serious mental illness. The most common form of violence associated with mental illness is not against others, but rather, against oneself.” Nationally, one in five children has a diagnosable mental disorder. According to the 2011 Connecticut School Health Survey, 25% of students reported being depressed during the past year, and nearly 7% reported having attempted suicide. Last year, of the more than 2,000 local children referred to the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut, over 485 had attempted or threatened suicide; 333 were the victims of abuse or neglect, and 214 were bullied.

Mental health is interconnected with all aspects of a child’s well-being, healthy functioning and development. When children who are struggling do not get needed mental health care, physical health is threatened, learning is compromised, family life may be shattered and childhood is derailed.. Repeated exposure to violence, difficult life circumstances, loss of a parent or other person significant in a child’s life intensifies emotional suffering. Together these challenges can lead to difficulties in peer relationships and increase isolation and hopelessness, eroding a youngster’s ability to tolerate frustration and to manage angry feelings. Fortunately, with effective mental health intervention and treatment, risks are reduced and youngsters are far less likely to engage in self destructive or violent behavior and far more likely to become engaged, productive members of society.

As we try to learn from Sandy Hook, it is crucial that we focus on the importance of early identification and prevention as part of the solution. Despite limited resources, as a community, we continue to make progress as public and private agencies, health and mental health professionals, schools, police, and child protective services staff increasingly work in collaboration in our community. In the days following the tragedy at Sandy Hook, members of the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut’s crisis team, joined mental health professionals from across the state in a coordinated effort to provide help in Newtown.

In Connecticut the Department of Children and Families, in collaboration with community partners, has made great strides in improving access for children and teens to community based professional mental health services. In an emergency, anywhere in the state, you can dial 211 to be connected to a local Emergency Mobile Psychiatric Services team. The Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut provides this vital service in Stamford, Greenwich, Darien and New Canaan. But, please do not wait until it is an emergency to seek help. If you are concerned that your child is troubled, unhappy or anxious, or if you are interested in learning more about professional mental health services, please call the Child Guidance Center at (203) 324-6127.


Sherry Perlstein, MSW

President and CEO

Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut


For further information please contact Sherry Perlstein

During business hours 203 517-3319

After hours 203 940-5872


HaroldAMaio January 18, 2013 at 12:42 PM
the Stigma of Mental Illness If there is one message ...one wants sent by a mental health professional, it is that there is a “stigma”. A stigma to Jews, to rape, to mental illnesses. All fall in the same category. I am a Jew, you state publicly, there is a stigma to Jews. Why would I access your “services’? I have been raped, you state publicly there is a stigma to rape. Why would I access your “services”? I have a mental illness, you state publicly there is stigma to mental illnesses. Why would I access your “services”? In not one of the above three instances would I. Nor would you. . Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor
Karen Johnson January 18, 2013 at 01:07 PM
I agree that the conversation shifted quickly to blame, and away from a needed discourse on how we as a society deal with mental health. But wasn't the shooter an adult? Shouldn't we try as you say to "direct our energies to looking at how well we are meeting the needs of the individuals in our community who suffer in isolation from mental illness and traumatic life circumstances, and commit to working together to increase access to effective, comprehensive mental health diagnostic and treatment services" to all people, including adults? I realize you work at the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut, but unless the discussion is broader in scope, for example what services might have been or should have been available to the shooter or anyone who ages out of your services, and that child guidance is only one part of a more comprehensive solution, then your letter seems self-serving.
Greenwich Taxpayer January 18, 2013 at 02:07 PM
The bottom line is that our mental health system is broken, for children and adults alike, and we must strive on both a state and national level to fix it so that those that need mental health services receive it in a timely manner.
Concerned Parent & Gun Owner January 19, 2013 at 02:46 AM
And in the meantime, in an effort to feel like we are "doing something", the emotions of the moment are being hijacked by the permanent gun control establishment. When the causes are so multivariate and the solutions so vexing, it is easier to go after the implements. Sure, Mrs. Lanza may have been catastrophically negligent in storing their firearms. Worse, if she truly feared her son was a risk, why were there unsecured firearms anywhere in the house? But still, the guns would not have killed anyone unless this sadly and insanely deranged boy did not take them up. In our rush to "do something, anything" to assuage our collective guilt of failing the Adam Lanza's of the world, we are going to pass gun control legislation that will have little impact on true gun violence (suicide, accidents, known-shooters, criminals) in the hope that there is a small chance that we reduce the carnage of the next such event. But we are completely ignoring that the determined disturbed person will find a way to destroy life. Let's have a measured debate but just as we do not rush to "control" those in the mental health system by "banning" them from society, let's not rush to put ineffective and counter productive gun control legislation on the books. Otherwise, when it happens again, we will be left dumbstruck as to how could this be.....
Concerned Parent & Gun Owner January 19, 2013 at 03:43 AM
Excellent article on the intersection of mental illness, the current American "treatment" regime and horrific gun violence: http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2013/01/17/the-invisible-trigger-mental-health-and-gun-violence/ Excerpt: "While most of the gun violence in America is committed by the clinically sane, the most horrific massacres are often the work of deranged people whose problems had come to the attention of family, neighbors or work associates. Strangely, America has regressed in its treatment of the mentally ill. In the 19th century, most of the nation’s disturbed were either on the street or in jail. In an effort to provide humane treatment, state institutions popped up across the country, confining most of the nation’s severely deranged. Yet by the 1960s, controversy erupted as stories of mistreatment and poor conditions (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, anyone?) became rampant. Deinstitutionalization followed, in a movement that received strong bipartisan support. ..... Overall, available treatment not only became scarcer, but far more expensive. The mentally ill were either forced to live with their families, who weren’t prepared to deal with their condition, or were abandoned altogether." A must read for those interested in the topic.


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