On Feb. 5, Tufts Medical School hosted a panel discussion on the role of public health professionals and mental health providers on preventing tragedies like the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. The panel was moderated by John Schreiber, M.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the medical school, and featured Janice Levine, Ph.D., a clinical and developmental psychologist who responded to the Newtown, CT shootings; Jon Sargent, M.D., director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center and social & behavioral medicine lecturer; Laurel Leslie, M.D., MPH, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and public health researcher with the Tufts Clinical and Translational Science Institute; and Sigalit Hoffman, M.D., a psychiatrist and medical director of the Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Project at Tufts Medical Center. Each panelist focused on a different piece of the tragedy and the problems behind it. Throughout the discussion, two themes emerged: violence and the role of violent media in society, and weapons and the second amendment.
Janice Levine, Ph.D., opened the discussion with her experiences as one of the first mental health professionals to respond on-site to the tragedy. Mentioning the Sandy Hook Promise, a community-based initiative to “support common sense solutions that make my community and our country safer from similar acts of violence,” Levine highlighted the similarities between their mission and that of medical practitioners. However, she also stressed that doctors have a responsibility to be the first to respond to the warning signs that arise before tragedy strikes.
“You are in a field where you alone can be a diagnostician and first responder; where you are singular privy to the health and lifestyle of your patients,” she said. Levine urged students to begin dialogues and become pioneers within the AMA and AAP “to protect and enhance the sanctity of speech between doctor and patient, and that they use this privilege wisely to advance protection, safety, and the prevention of harm to our children.”
Sigalit Hoffman, M.D., continued the discussion outlining the red flags associated with trauma, especially in children. She highlighted the importance of adults dealing with the tragedy while still being emotionally available for their children. Hoffman also stressed that some children would be more affected by the tragedy than others, and identifying those children is one of the most important pieces of recovery for the Newtown community. In dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy, she spoke of schools preparing plans in the event that such things were to occur and so they are ready to act on it if disasters strike.
Jon Sargent, M.D., re-directed the conversation to focus on the larger societal issues at hand. He reminded the audience of data surrounding gun violence and concluded that it’s “community-based and selective.”
“Violence tends to occur at the intersection between race and poverty; adversity builds on adversity,” he explained. Sargent’s call to action for those in attendance was to honor the tragedy and get involved as civilians through community watches, mentorships, picking up trash–anything that would strengthen communities where these crimes are more probable.
Laurel Leslie, M.D., MPH, concluded the discussion by bringing everything back to the individual level: “What can I do as one person? What can I do outside and beyond myself?” she asked. As citizens, Leslie explained, we can all change public discourse and thought around gun violence by challenging the existing norms about them. We can also push for change by signing petitions. As healthcare professionals, Leslie urged the students in the room to ask the difficult questions: to ask patients about suicide.
After the panel discussion, the audience asked questions that led to many revealing facts about violence, children and metal health access:
- 20% of kids are at high risk for being affected from watching violent video games
- According to Sargent, some kids are “adult magnets:” they’re attractive, intelligent, athletic and overall successful. These kids receive the most attention, yet it’s the non-adult magnets that need the most help. If people want to help stop inner city violence, they must make a difference one-on-one with the non-adult magnets.
- The availability of mental health access for children is alarmingly low. There are 75 million children in America and only 8,000 child psychiatrists. These mental health practitioners live in very concentrated urban areas and are not accessible to children throughout the country. Also, the insurance reimbursement for psychologists is not sufficient, so most child psychiatrists chose to open private practices. The panel agreed the system is flawed and Sargent spoke to the aspiring medical practitioners in the room, the future of American health and medicine, “We don’t do this well and we are giving it to you.”
John Schreiber, M.D., MPH, ended the discussion with news that the NRA is currently attempting to block H.R. 321, a bill that allows research on firearm safety and gun violence, and urged attendees to call their congressmen and support the bill.