Beyond the blame game, all of society is responsible

Jane Rosenthal is a producer and co-founder of Tribeca Film Festival and Tribeca Film Institute, and CEO of Tribeca Enterprises. She is also a board member of Child Mind Institute.
Dr. Harold Koplewicz is president of Child Mind Institute (childmind.org)

“Things will not change until we are able to de-stigmatize mental illness.”

As a society we are really good at pointing fingers and playing the blame game. No one ever just stands up and says, “This is my responsibility!” The current argument over gun control, mental health services and public safety that has emerged after the heartbreaking slaughter of children in Newtown, Conn., is an example. The killer is at fault. But we are all responsible. The media, the entertainment industry, the politicians, the NRA, all of us. So what can we do? What are we going to do now?

First we must admit that we all share the responsibility for the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Only one person willed it, but we all allowed it. The more we realize this, the more we can achieve. We have failed to protect our children. We have failed to help our most impaired fellow citizens. We continue to ignore the vulnerable among us. How crazy is this? Where is the common sense? How can we prevent this in the future?

Guns aren’t going away. Movies, TV, videogames, the Internet will not stop shining a light on our lives — all the good and all the bad. The stories we tell are part of our collective cultural heritage. And mental disorders in children and adolescents are also not disappearing. Everyone — parents like us, filmmakers, mental health professionals, opinion makers, legislators — need to get real about mental health and particularly the mental health of our kids.

And interestingly, gun advocates, who have not historically been supporters of mental health care, have latched onto improved mental health care as an alternative “fix” to comprehensive gun control legislation. But what has been missing in the debate following the carnage of Sandy Hook has been a focus on the need to change attitudes towards combating childhood mental illness. Adult mental illness doesn’t appear suddenly but is the manifestation of conditions that have always been present in the individual.

Fact: Mental illness is real, common and treatable.

Fact: Mental illness is a barrier to many millions of Americans who strive to be a positive force in our society.

Fact: Early intervention — helping children who struggle with psychiatric and learning disorders — is the best way to help our kids and our community as a whole.

Some 15 million young people in the United States have a psychiatric or learning disorder, and less than half of them will receive adequate treatment. For any other type of illness, such a gap between impact and intervention would not be tolerated. Our failure to address the mental health needs of our children and young people is just plain deplorable.

We simply don’t treat disorders that occur from the neck up with the same respect, compassion and scientific rigor as disorders that occur in any other part of the body. This will not change until we are able to de-stigmatize mental illness, talk about it openly and educate the public.

Bradley Cooper’s performance as Pat in “Silver Linings Playbook” is a great example. Pat is not perfect, he is bipolar, and has gotten into some serious trouble. But with medication, therapy and support of his family and friends through thick and thin, he turns it around. He has failures, but he also has a support network of parents, siblings, friends and a therapist whose loyalty goes well beyond the office.

No matter how we change how the media sensationalizes crime, or how we in the entertainment business tell our stories, it will not be enough. We need a national conversation about how to bring mental disorders into the open and remove the barriers to getting help.

Untreated mental illness regularly leads to feelings of helplessness and isolation and is more likely to result in both suicide and violence. Parents who are worried about their children, as Nancy Lanza clearly was, should not be hiding those anxieties.

Adam Lanza was no doubt a complex individual, and he has left behind bottomless pain. To help young people take a very different course will require deep reserves — of people, of knowledge, of will. But we know we have it in us — after all, it is our responsibility.