2024 Commencement

Please visit our commencement page for all information regarding the 
ceremony for Class of 2024 PhD, DSW, MSW and MSN graduates. 

Apply Now for 2024

Fall 2024 On-Campus MSW Application FINAL Deadline: July 16, 2024

Op-Ed: What Can Social Workers Do After Tragedies Like Sandy Hook

  • Opinion

Nearly a month has passed since the world watched the events unfold at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a young man opened fire and killed 26 people including 20 young children. As shock gives way to anger, our nation begins to grapple with layers of causes and solutions, and looks to social work and other helping professions to find answers.

One area of scrutiny has been the connection between serious mental illness and violence, and while this increased media attention on mental health provides an opportunity for social workers to advocate for more funding for mental health services, we must be aware that perception of violent behavior is an important cause of the stigmatization of persons with mental disorders.  Stigma associated with mental illness, reinforced by the perception that all persons with mental illness are potentially violent, contributes to limitations in the quality and quantity of services available for treatment, as well as barriers to seeking treatment for those who need it.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2011 there were 4.9 million adults aged 18 or older who self-reported needing mental health services but did not receive them.  Among these, 50.1 percent reported they were unable to afford the cost of services. Eight percent reported they did not seek treatment because of possible negative reactions from friends and family, 7.1 percent reported they did not seek services because they didn’t want others to find out, and 7 percent reported they were afraid that seeking services would have a negative impact on their job.  Not only is our mental health care system inadequate in this country, but our friends and neighbors with mental illness are trying to manage symptoms on their own and not taking advantage of available services due to fears or marginalization and discrimination.

The National Institute of Mental Health tells us that most persons with mental illness are not violent and that severe mental illness actually contributes little to overall rates of violence in our communities.  However, it should be noted that there is a significant connection between mental health and violence, particularly when psychosis or comorbid substance abuse is present.  Yet, this connection is true only if the mental illness is left untreated.

If treatment is the key to decreasing violence, how do we engage in meaningful discussions about the link between violence and mental health, and advocate for increasing services that we know will curb violence, without furthering the damaging and often inaccurate view of the public that persons with mental illness are to be feared? How do we promote social justice while still respecting the dignity of those we are advocating for? There are several ways that social workers can and should respond in the coming weeks.   

Monitor your own reactions: Be aware of your own feelings and responses to this event. Examine your own attitudes and practices. If you work in mental health, be aware that your clients will be particularly vulnerable to discrimination in the coming weeks, and watch for your own biases.

Engage in meaningful discussions about mental health: Because you are a social worker, friends and family will be looking to you to help make sense of the Sandy Hook tragedy.  Let others know when the media is portraying inaccurate and negative images of mental illness.  This is a wonderful opportunity for you to educate others about the difference that treatment can make. These discussions can facilitate changes in the values and beliefs of others related to mental illness.

Advocate for systemic change:  Engage in macro-level policy change strategies.  This can include advocating for increased services, but also for policy that ensures the rights of persons with mental illness remain intact. Rights to housing, job, healthcare and employment must be protected. There are a number of state and federal policies related to mental health that have been introduced. Find out what they are. The National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) website has information on legislation it supports and how to become involved.

Mental health has come to the forefront of our nation’s attention. Let’s make sure we are embracing the Code of Ethics’ values of social justice, dignity and worth of people in our advocacy efforts.

Laura Gale, LCSW, is a lecturer in the USC School of Social Work Virtual Academic Center.

To reference the work of our faculty online, we ask that you directly quote their work where possible and attribute it to "FACULTY NAME, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work” (LINK: https://dworakpeck.usc.edu)