This past summer some of my drama students and I took part in an active shooter scenario training. Some students played the role of those who were terrorized by a gunman but survived with no physical harm. Other students played the roles of those who were injured or–even more horrifically–dead, complete with realistic wounds applied by moulage make-up artists. I played the role of a teacher who went into cardiac arrest after witnessing one of my students being shot to death. Other teachers and school employees took on the roles of classroom teachers and office personnel in the given situation. Administrators were also present to essentially play themselves in the scenario.
There are some feelings that arose during the training that I will never be able to properly articulate. There are thing about the training that I won’t share in fear of someone reading about it and using what I learned to their advantage should that person “snap” and attempt to carry out a loathsome plan of his/her own. I haven’t written about it until now–not for lack of trying– because it was a very difficult experience–one that I’ve reflected upon daily since I participated in it–one that has changed the way I do business in my classroom–one that has inserted an element of fear into my everyday life, not just for me, but more so for my students and my own children. I know that statistics are in our favor for the likelihood of something like the tragedies our country has experienced happening to my loved ones or me, but the statistics are changing with every mass shooting. Even though the training was completely simulated, by the time the scenario ended, I felt like crying. I felt like I could have an actual heart attack. Some of the students who participated had real panic attacks and needed real medical attention. Afterward, I wanted to place a protective shield around every school in America–around every child in the world. It was too real, which was hard, but also good because it gave administrators, first-responders, EMTs and law enforcement the chance to practice in case something like this ever happened in our community.
Got that? We offered them an opportunity to practice in case this ever happens to us. In our community. We had to practice. Because it could happen to anyone. It could happen to us. It used to be rare. Yesterday’s college campus shooting in Oregon is one more reminder that it is becoming more common. In the Omaha area alone there have been two mass shootings of recent date–one at Von Maur department store at Westroads shopping mall, and one at my alma mater, Millard South High School. And now yesterday, and before that, Charleston, Fort Hood, Newtown, Aurora, Oakland, Columbine … Sadly, I know I’m leaving many out.
The fact that we have to train for something so unthinkable demonstrates how serious this possibility is. The fact that something like this is a possibility–a very real possibility–terrifies me. The fact that I don’t want to describe what we did that day or how we did it in fear that some depraved individual will read it and be able to better plan an attack, speaks to the culture of fear Americans live in.
Of course I want you to go home and hug your babies. Of course I want you to be vigilant. Of course I want everyone in education to go through the training I went through. Of course it makes me sad that I want that. But what I really want to examine is why this happens. There are many theories–most of them quite controversial in nature, but I favor one theory. We don’t take care of ourselves or each other.
We tend to our physical ailments without giving it a second thought, but for some reason taking care of our people’s mental ailments is still a secretive, taboo practice. It’s still something we are ashamed of. This causes people to NOT seek the help they need. It causes people to NOT seek the help that their children need. Mental illness makes us ashamed of something we cannot control. We are so damned concerned about how others perceive us that we are not taking care of basic health or doing so in secret. Think about this: Why do we call it “mental health”? Why do we separate it out? Health is health. Our minds are part of our bodies, so, while the mind is a specialized area, it’s still contributes to the health of the whole person.
And, I’m not talking about slapping drugs on the problem either, though I realize there is a time and place for medication. I’m talking about making talk, cognitive, or behavior therapy available without the stigma. I’m talking about making it okay to talk about what ails us, both mentally and physically. When someone has diabetes or cancer, we get upset with them when they don’t take care of themselves. When someone reaches out for assistance because they hear voices, or can’t control their own moods, we slap them with an ugly label and ostracize them. It’s a wonder that anyone seeks help. Without a support system in place, it’s unlikely that a person will.
No matter what diagnosis any one of the shooters in any of the recent or past situations may or may not have received, I feel confident in my untrained opinion that they all have some sort of untreated OR mistreated condition–that if they had sought and received the help they needed somewhere along the way–sometime before they made the decision on the 360 degree wheel of decisions to attack unarmed individuals–there would’ve been a chance that they would’ve chosen another way to deal with their problems. Without help, there was no chance to avert these tragedies. I am not saying that these shooters are blameless–they ARE responsible for the depravity of their acts. I cannot even speak or write any of their names because I don’t want to glorify their actions. But, we need to get to the root of the problem. We cannot ignore it anymore. Let’s get over ourselves and admit it when we need help. When others need help, let’s make sure they get it. Let’s remove the shame attached to seeking help for legitimate, treatable problems.
It seems that we are all on the verge of a nervous breakdown. We need a refresh-reset for our society. There is no pat, simple answer for how to prevent this sort of tragedy. There is a web of interconnected problems in our society today. I do know one thing for certain though: We need to take care of our people.