Shooting shines light on mental health issues




A number of subjects have been thrust into the center of the debate in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, not the least of which is mental health.

Ric Dalke, executive director of the Area Mental Health Center, which serves 13 southwest Kansas counties, said that automatically linking violence to mental illness is a generalization that needs to be addressed.

"There are a lot of people struggling with emotional disorders that will never be violent," Dalke said. "But on the other side ... if an individual is experiencing a psychotic disorder, the nature of that disease, the definition of that disease, is that they're out of control. They're out of control of their thoughts, and that can lead to that out-of-control behavior, so there is a subsection of that population that you would consider that has that potential, and that's what we see in so many of these kinds of shootings and tragic events, is a person struggling with an emotional disorder has gotten to a place where out-of-control thoughts and behavior have led to that perfect-storm kind of thing, where somebody ends up getting hurt."

Dalke and Lisa Southern, director of Garden City Mental Health Center, said that external and societal factors also play a part in these cases.

"I would say from what I've seen with cases like that, where we have kids come in maybe threatening someone else or something, it's not a mental illness, it's a bullying issue," Southern said, adding that the AMHC has been implementing programs to bring awareness to the dangers of bullying.

In terms of mass shootings, Dalke said that research indicates that bullying plays a part but that there are also behavioral aspects to consider when discussing violence.

"You can look at that as far as some of the video games and such. If I'm around violence all the time, then that's what I've learned. That's a learned behavior then, not necessarily tied to emotional disorder," he said.

He also said that in cases where the AMHC gets calls from concerned school officials, particularly in instances where a threat has been made, that standard protocol is to perform an evaluation of the particular student, in order to determine whether there is a mental or emotional disorder. In those situations, working in tandem with law enforcement, AMHC staff also determine what needs to be done to provide safety for both the individual and others.

Southern said that they sometimes encounter barriers in these cases, however, since it is usually a parent's decision on whether to have their child assessed.

"... And maybe the school doesn't have enough to force the issue on the parent, and of course, we don't have any teeth to force it," Southern said. "I think they might be concerned about the cost. I mean, if they've never had any contact with the mental health system, they might hear, 'You need to go see somebody,' and think, 'I can't afford that,' so they avoid us because of that, without even coming and having the opportunity of talking about our sliding scale or how we can somehow assist their child."

Dalke said that in some cases, depending on a family's income level, there is no cost. But he also said that the stigma associated with mental illness often hinders people from seeking help.

"Stigma still exists, as much as we work at trying to break that down and let people know that most of us will experience a depression in our lives at some time, most of us will experience an emotional disorder," he said.

Southern said that there are certain things that parents can look for when trying to determine whether their child is suffering from any type of emotional disorder.

"A kid that might have depression or anxiety or something like that — if there are changes in their friends, or in their social activity, their eating habits, their sleeping habits, their hygiene habits — those would be things I think people would notice right away and could call us," she said.

Dalke said that whether people seek help at the AMHC or somewhere else, the time to seek that help is when something is interfering with your life.

"I don't care if you call it a mental disorder an emotional disorder or anything — behavioral disorder — it doesn't matter what you call it. If it's interfering socially, if it's interfering with your job, if it's interfering at school, if it's interfering with your marriage, relationships, whatever it is, get help, give us a call. It doesn't matter what we call it," he said.

The AMHC also provides outreach services to the community, to reach those who don't feel comfortable coming to their facility.

"I don't think people necessarily understand all the community-based services we have. I mean, they think you come to Area Mental Health and that's where you see someone. No, we're out in people's homes, and in schools. Wherever they are, we can be," Southern said.

Lauren Lueck, marketing coordinator at AMHC, said that there are now mental health first aid programs, much like the traditional first aid program that teaches CPR, now available for people to take that can teach them ways to respond to high-stress situations.

"If you're in that immediate situation, it teaches how you should respond and how can you keep yourself and those around you safe," Lueck said, adding that the training could help ease a situation until professional help arrives.

For information on upcoming mental health first aid courses, visit For more information about services that the AMHC provides, visit If there is a concern about one's own or a loved one's behavior, call (800) 259-9576.

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