Community Perspective: Scapegoating Mental Health

A community perspectives piece by Keita Franklin, LCSW, PhD

Students visit a makeshift memorial on the campus of Bridgewater College after a shooting last week

Last week I received a call that no parent ever wants to get. My son shared that his college in Bridgewater, VA was reporting an active shooter and that the students were told to “shelter in place” – the message noted – “this is not a drill.”  Within hours the news outlets reported that two law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty – responding to “suspicious activity” on the campus stemming from 27-year-old, Alexander Wyatt Campbell, a Bridgewater College Alum, who apparently may have been squatting in the campus for some time and had a bag full of firearms.  As a parent, the fear and concern for my son and his classmates was unimaginable – but even more so, the grief and loss experienced by the families and loved ones of John Painter and J.J. Jefferson has to be one of the most painful emotions that anyone ever experiences.  Let me be clear –  these men are true hero’s.  Their selfless actions in the face of great danger saved the lives of students and faculty at Bridgewater College that day.  There are few words for this level of tragedy – the unnecessary, shocking and sudden loss of a loved one.  In the days after Campbell’s arrest, his mother provided comments to the media, noting his need for mental health care.  

“My son is mentally ill and he did something that I could not control and no one could come to help him, I’m sorry for what has happened. I could not prevent it…..It is not about gun control. It is not. … It is about mental illness and how we have no control over that, the way society is right now. I can’t help my son.”

I feel for Alexander’s mother – as I imagine she is also suffering.  And, I cannot fathom what Cheryl Campbell is going through as she unpacks the days and months leading up to the tragic deaths at Bridgewater College this week.  But, I do know a few things about mental health and cannot let her comments go unchecked.  

As a social scientist who has spent my career leading national programs in the field of mental health and around hot topics like lethal means and firearms – here are a few key facts that I feel compelled to share.  

First, mentally ill people are not typically violent.  Ms. Campbell’s statements perpetuate a myth that must be stopped.  What we in the field know is that people struggling with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. In fact, across the nation only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to someone with a serious mental illness.

Second, when individuals who are struggling have access to deadly weapons we can expect deadly outcomes, as we saw at Bridgewater this week.  Limiting access during periods of crisis or during unstable environments, absolutely can save a life.  The research on these phenomena are well documented in the public health literature about firearms safety. Risk protection orders, gun violence restraining orders, safe storage of lethal means, putting time and space between an individual at risk and a deadly weapon, requiring a license, all help to save lives.  

Finally, Ms. Campbell notes the inadequacies of our current mental health system in America.  Certainly, we do have a mental health crisis in our nation, the demand for care is at an all-time high and we don’t have enough trained and available mental health clinicians. And it’s not just that, mental health care is costly and difficult to obtain. It’s not uncommon for individuals with mental health concerns to be put on long wait list, and for providers to be burnt out and not available to provide the care that is needed.  The problems are multi-layered and complex; even more so in our post on set of COVID era, which has taxed an already burdened system.  Getting help is much harder than it should be in this nation and we must fix that.  Recruiting and training mental health professionals and supporting them in their career is a necessary start to overhauling our mental health system.  People should be able to access high quality mental health care when and where they need it.  

Despite our challenges in access to care, we must not accept status quo and allow people to go without much needed interventions that we know work. We must stay engaged, connected and involved with our loved ones, especially when they are suffering. We cannot stop in our efforts to reduce stigma, to let people know that we are there for them, and to work tirelessly on their behalf. 

In the case of Alexander Campbell, I have no doubt that his mother tried to navigate the complex mental health system to get him care and ran into barriers and certainly that is unfortunate and unfair.  Identifying individuals who are struggling early – long before they are alone, loitering at a college campus with a bag of firearms is paramount.  Like cancer or any other health care problem, early identification and intervention matters.  We wouldn’t wait until a cancer diagnosis was at stage 4 before we would intervene – equally so – for mental health issues – upstream and early engagement can save lives. 

We also must recognize that the tragic death of these two law enforcement officers is also unfortunate and unfair and a testament that we must not stop in our efforts to identify people who are struggling and stay with them, side-by-side using any and all means to get them the help they need.  Keeping these individuals away from deadly weapons and ensuring the police, courts, and health departments are aware of their risks is essential.  

Like so many other communities impacted by the unnecessary loss of life, the Bridgewater community will heal from this trauma.  Staying connected, supporting one another, and recognizing that processing grief and loss takes time and patience will be essential.  Working together –to heal will provide the necessary hope for the Bridgewater College community and will honor the lives of the officers that were lost.  There are resources available for individuals or families that are struggling:

SAMHSA National Help Line -1-800-662-4357 – is a confidential, free, 24/7 phone line that provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. 

Mental Health First Aide – Offers training and education on how to recognize signs and symptoms of stress and what to do about it.

Mental Health America – Offers education and resources and tools for getting help with mental health issues.

National Institute for Mental Illness Help Line – a one stop call line that is available for individuals, family members, loved ones who are trying to help someone who is suffering from a mental health issue and are unsure on how to navigate that process 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)

National Sports Shooting Foundation a trade organization that provides education and training on firearms safety, safe storage and free firearms safety kits for communities.  

Dr. Keita Franklin is the parent of a student at Bridgewater College and a national leader in the field of mental health. She has served as an executive in the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs leading mental health programming.  She currently serves as Chief Clinical Officer at Loyal Source and is the Co-Director of the Columbia Lighthouse Project at Columbia University.  She serves on numerous Boards providing leadership in the area of suicide prevention.  

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