As part of National Public Health Week, the George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services hosted “From Dialogue to Action: Preventing Gun Violence” on April 5. The interdisciplinary discussion, anchored around last year’s shootings by a gunman believed to be mentally ill in Newtown, Conn., brought together policymakers, lawyers and mental health experts.
Speakers included Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association; Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Paramjit Joshi, director of psychiatry and psychology at Children’s National Medical Center; Richard Cooter, program coordinator and associate professor with George Washington’s Forensic Psychology Program; and Olga Acosta Price, associate professor at the School of Public Health and Health Services. Lynn R. Goldman, SPHHS dean, provided opening remarks and moderated the event.
Dr. Webster set the stage with an examination of today’s federal gun policy. While current exclusion criteria make the purchase of guns legal for 18- to 24-year-olds, Dr. Webster pointed out that this age group has one the highest rates of committing homicides. He also called attention to private gun sales, which require no background checks. Strengthening gun policy, he said, would involve expanding current gun prohibitions, fixing critical gaps in federal laws and establishing universal background checks for all gun purchasers—something he noted 74 percent of NRA members support.
Transitioning to the topic of mental illness, Dr. Joshi and Dr. Cooter brought their expertise to the conversation. Dr. Joshi discussed younger populations, explaining children with mental illness begin to show signs before the age of 14. She also shed light on the psychological effects violent mass media has on kids. Dr. Cooter, a lawyer and clinical psychologist who provides psychological evaluations for courts, focused on profiles of mentally ill adults. Both experts stressed the importance of avoiding stigmas and generalizations when approaching mental illness no matter the age group, adding that being mentally ill does not correlate with being violent.
“Can we really identify those people who are likely to shoot? The answer is we probably can’t, as a practical matter … There’s difficulty in predicting a relatively small number of incidents over a large population,” Dr. Cooter said.
Dr. Price, the final speaker, connected the links between public health policy, mental health awareness and gun control. She said the event was a chance to “reflect how we as public health professionals can respond to prevent such devastation in the future.”
She continued by recommending ways of integrating mental health care for children in school systems and training teachers to identify early signs of mental illness and respond to developmental needs more effectively.
“Mental health impacts us all. The promotion of emotional well-being should be a universal public health concern,” she said before sharing a quote from researcher Lynne Friedli: “Everyone has mental health needs, whether or not they have a mental illness, just as everyone has physical health needs, whether or not they are sick.”
When the forum opened to the audience, a long line of students and staff posed questions. SPHHS professors Mark Edberg and Kathleen Roche joined the panel and helped answer questions about ways to raise awareness without stigmatizing populations, how to make mental health services accessible in urban areas and how to distribute new research to the public.
“I was really inspired by all the work that’s already been done and the research that’s there,” said Ariel Young, a junior and the undergraduate liaison for the Black Public Health Student Network. “It seems like whenever an event like this happens, everyone tries to figure out where we are and what the gaps in research are, but it was nice to see people are taking initiative so children, the mentally ill and underserved communities get the help they need. There’s already an infrastructure here, we just need to help support and build on it.”