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When it comes to keeping children safe, we as pediatricians are known to pull out all the stops. We immunize children against diseases; we work within our community for stronger safety laws; we urge parents to buckle their kids into car seats and we talk about smoking, alcohol and drugs with teenagers. However, gun safety and the ability to protect children from gun violence is proving to be a challenge.
Getting into my car that fateful December afternoon last year, I saw seven missed calls on my cell phone from my husband. My first thought was it couldn't be anything related to our children as there was no call from school.
A little anxious, I called my husband who said that there was a shooting at a school in Newtown, that he had called our children's schools, and that they were all fine.
It was one-year ago, but I still remember what he said like it happened yesterday.
I remember checking CNN on my phone and just sitting there in the parking lot and reading as the horror unfolded. I remember not saying "I love you" to my daughters that morning because we were rushing out the door trying to catch the school bus. I remember walking my sons to their class. I remember fervently thanking God that they were all O.K. and that I was being given another chance to hug them and hold them.
I cannot even begin to imagine what those Newtown parents were going through at that time and how much their lives have changed.
Days like these are permanently etched in our minds. Because of Newtown and similar tragedies, the unthinkable is now a reality. When a child dies from gun violence, there is an emotional toll on the family and the entire community. Children and parents all over our country carry the weight of this reality with them, on some level, every day.
What happened in Newtown speaks to all of us and to the children we care for and challenges us to act. We need to identify antecedents to these tragic situations so that we can prevent them. We need to break the cycle of children's exposure to violence, in the community or at home, to bullying and abuse as well as to shootings and other violence. All of these have such an impact on a child's mental health and development.
The horrific event in Newtown prompted six states - California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and New York - to pass some form of comprehensive gun safety legislation. But laws are only part of the equation. We need adequate access to mental health services, both for those who are troubled enough to turn to violence and for those who are victims.
A recent article looked at American youth's mental, emotional and behavioral disorders and the services they have utilized. Data was collected over a 12-month period from a national survey. It revealed that fewer than half (45 percent) of teens with psychiatric disorders received any kind of mental health service.
What does this tell us as a nation?
We need to take psychiatric conditions seriously and utilize all the resources available to us. We need to use medically trained professionals, child psychiatrists, pediatric psychologists, and developmental-behavioral pediatricians strategically as consultants to schools and other mental health providers.
We, as health professionals, need to take leadership roles in setting up collaborations with school departments, local communities and law enforcement agencies to initiate early response to mental illness and refer when needed.
We have to focus on setting up programs that promote social emotional and coping skills, especially for teenagers who are struggling with mental health concerns. When they transition to adulthood we must devise ways of helping them continue to obtain appropriate mental health services.
Discriminating against individuals with any mental illness - be it autism or depression - only makes these problems worse. We have to eliminate the social stigma associated with mental illness and break the silence.
Dr. Ayesha Cheema-Hasan is a first-fellow in Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics at Hasbro Children's Hospital, R.I. She lives in East Lyme.