Safety: is it just an illusion?

Again, in reference to recent hotly debated issues, I’m not going to address gun control. I do think, though, it’s interesting to think about what constitutes true “safety,” or implied or felt safety. I’ve been thinking that most of the safety measures that are being implemented in schools right now, for instance, are really more there to create the illusion of safety than really, truly making our kids completely free from danger during school.

Kids are smart enough to figure this out really quickly, too. I have children at a high school, a middle school, and an elementary school. Soon after Sandy Hook, all three schools immediately started sending home letters and providing recorded information via phone calls about their stepped-up efforts to ensure students’ safety. Honestly, my first reaction on hearing the first phone call message was, “Right. Like changing which gates are going to be open at which times and which will be locked all day is really going to change things that much.” Yep. I was skeptical, and I’m still skeptical a month later.

fenceThe high school started locking more of its gates two days ago. When I picked up my child and a friend at the end of the school day, I heard a good amount of reasoning from the backseat about how they viewed the new policies. Mostly it was this: it’s not going to do any real good. For one thing, the fences surrounding the school are just about six-foot-tall chain-link numbers. My little teen girl has jumped them any number of times (for good reason, let me just say; she’s not a rule-breaker) when she’s been at school outside of regular hours. So locking more gates isn’t exactly going to keep anyone out who really wants to get in.

The kids also observed that the recent threat that actually occurred at the school was by a student, and he had told a classmate about his intention to harm someone the next day at school (I think on a Facebook page). Allowing only students in to a few particular gates in the morning would not have kept this kid out because he belonged there!

The door to my kindergartener’s class is now locked every day the second the kids have all lined up and marched inside. If we arrive even 30 seconds late, then she has to stand outside, knock, and wait for someone inside to open the door. This is the only change I could see as making some kind of difference. The classroom’s only access is that door, and because of the design of the schools here (we’re in California, so the weather’s temperate, so the buildings all have rooms that open directly to the outside, not using any hallways), the room is then secure if the heavy door is locked. There are some smallish windows, but it would be difficult to get in through them. So I think this is the only measure that makes sense, though it stinks if we’re running late. That’s OK, though.

Aside from that, all the gate-locking in the world is like having a basic home alarm system: it helps the most as merely a deterrent to the casual intruder. But someone who is absolutely determined to get in will easily find a way around it.

These are just a few simple examples of how the schools are trying to demonstrate their increased commitment to our children’s safety. But really, it doesn’t mean much to me. Life is impossible to secure. Wacky, random, and tragic things happen everywhere. It’s impossible to fortify ourselves or everywhere we go to a point that we will be completely safe from any threat. Stuff happens. People are crazy. They do stupid, crazy, horrible things sometimes. Yes, it’s good to do what we can to reduce the harm, but so much of what the schools are doing really just seems pointless. I want to be safe, and I sure as heck want my kids to be safe. But neither I nor anyone else can guarantee their safety anytime, anywhere.

That’s the thing: we can talk about gun safety, about gun control and rights, we can talk about making security better in all kinds of contexts. But (yes, TSA) there are always holes in the systems and loose ends and cracks of some kind or another, whether it’s human error or breakable machines, etc. Stuff slips through all the time.

Thinking we can actually keep everyone safe in any situation is just fruitless and ridiculous. We can try. I’m not saying we shouldn’t. But in the end, all the measures in the world are merely an illusion of security. Because life and other people are unpredictable and not safe. We can just do the best we can to go about our business and take care of each other in the meantime.

Yes, guns are an issue in shootings, but what about mental health?

After a horrific mass shooting that took the lives of primarily young children, many people’s thoughts turned to the inevitable questions of “why” and “how.” I also noticed, unsurprisingly, many people discussing in social media and analysts addressing on news outlets the issue of gun control. I’ll save my opinions on that topic and address what actually came to my mind immediately after or right before the gun issue: mental health in America.

I read a fine article by a psychiatrist on CNN that was written after school shootings in Ohio, and he made some fine points about major mental illness and how it is handled here in the U.S. He briefly alluded to the changes that occurred in mental health care in the past decades. Basically, people with serious issues were once confined for life to institutions, usually far from home and their families. In trying to change this system, many of these institutions were closed and their inmates sent home for treatment. While this was certainly a more compassionate and family-centered way of helping, it created many holes in the care of those with serious problems.

I want to tread carefully here. As with so many other issues, this is a complex one, with many facets that need to be considered and weighed. I suppose I should backtrack a bit and talk about why mental illness came to mind after these latest shootings: honestly, with most of these events, it is discovered during investigation that the shooter had major problems. Often, these mental problems were insufficiently addressed. I do believe that evil exists and that crimes are committed by evil people and those who are extremely selfish to the point of disregard for others’ lives. But I also have seen in the news just how often these kinds of horrific crimes are committed by people who have major mental illnesses. This isn’t to say that mental illness can’t overlap with evil, but people with mental illness can do some horrible things while basically not in possession of their “right minds.” This is why we have an “insanity defense” in our legal system, and for good reason. Those who truly experience times they are essentially just not themselves or their minds are completely not their own, once treated with medication and therapy, can experience horrible grief and remorse at what they did while under that “alternate influence,” one could say. My heart goes out to not just their victims but themselves because of what they have to live with.

Our society is still not nearly where it could be in not just treating and caring for the mentally ill, but in just understanding it and accepting it as another illness that some encounter in the course of life. I’ve often said it would be a lot easier for others to understand what I go through if I just had diabetes or cancer or something more “straightforward” or strictly “physiological,” rather than something that affects the mind. Too many people simply don’t appreciate what it’s like to experience mental issues, and too many just write them off as something kind of made-up or “all in our head” (that one’s a bit ironic). That creates a society in which those with mental illness don’t really care to admit to themselves that they have problems that could improve with proper treatment, and in which there just isn’t enough support and help for them among the general population and in health care or other parts of society. All too often, those with mental illness fall through the cracks, even more than those with other more “understandable” illnesses (heart disease, diabetes, what have you) don’t get sufficient treatment if they can’t afford it, etc.

I don’t want to see our country go back to institutionalizing everyone with major mental issues far away from society, away from their families and support systems. But I am positive that we need more real help locally, and more firm but compassionate laws that would help those who might be a danger to themselves or others. It just seems that so many who commit crimes that become publicized were schizophrenic or bipolar and weren’t taking medication at the time of the crime. And yes, in these diseases, even those who are receiving care tend to want to quit taking their meds. I hate to say that we should force medication on these people, but sometimes that seems to be one of the best ways to prevent these kinds of crimes. How we do that or at least make tighter regulations on this is, yes, complex and needs to be carefully considered and applied.

My church congregation experienced our own violent crime a mere two years ago, in which a man came into our church building after services and ended up shooting and killing our bishop. It was a horrific tragedy, and one that again showed that these kinds of things can happen anywhere, even safe places like schools and churches. We were all comforted by our faith and pulled together in this event, but it left its mark. And yes, the shooter ended up forcing a confrontation with the police in which he was killed by them, and I’m fairly confident that was his aim, to end up dead. And yes, he had mental illness for which he wasn’t taking medication at the time.

We don’t yet know if this latest mass shooting was tied to a shooter with mental illness. But I’m willing to bet it will be. And while we can rightly discuss gun control, we as a society and government would be very misguided to skip over a well-needed discussion about mental illness in America. This protester may have been addressing guns, but let’s please, please, please apply this to mental illness as well. The fate of more people hangs in the balance.

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