I was honored this week to be included among those whom the Vice President is consulting on how the United States can best respond to the horror of Newtown, Connecticut and to the need to keep children safe. Together with the country’s leading experts on mental health, I was welcomed to a meeting chaired by Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and asked to represent the voices of the hundreds of thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their friends and families who constitute the Special Olympics family nationwide. The fact that I was invited is a tribute to all of them–to their courage in the face of so many obstacles, to their leadership in the fight to end stigma against those with developmental disabilities, and to their increasing power to articulate a vision for the nation that is more welcoming, joyful and healthy. I wouldn’t have been in the room were it not for the thousands of leaders who make up the Special Olympics “Dignity Revolution.”
I did my best to articulate what I think our athletes and families and friends would’ve said. Over 20 leaders spoke and many emphasized key points that were summarized in a “call to action” that was circulated by several leaders at the meeting. They all begged the administration to make this into a turning point. Specifically, the “call to action” asked the nation to do the following:
Immediately implement school, family, and community based programs to promote mental health and prevent mental illness and substance abuse and to provide early interventions for those exhibiting these conditions.
I agreed with this recommendation and added that the best school based social and emotional learning (SEL) programs have a demonstrated track record of improving behavior, reducing aggression, and even increasing standardized test scores. CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), a not for profit organization whose board I chair, has led the national conversation on the need to scale up evidence based SEL programs nationwide. Dr. Roger Weissberg, CASEL’s president, has been the leader in demonstrating the power of these high quality programs. I hope that now is the time to move SEL to the center of the education agenda and by doing so, to make schools an effective resource for promoting healthy development. I know that if the country embarks on this path, our many youth activists in Special Olympics Project Unify will be ready to do more if asked and to join adults in improving the climate and relationships in schools and to maximizing the chance that children with serious challenges don’t feel isolated and get the help and support they need.
Immediately begin teaching students at all levels to recognize the signs of mental illness and addiction, and to seek help when needed.
The best SEL programs do just that–they help teachers to become more familiar with the social and emotional life of students and help peers become more comfortable seeking help for themselves and for others when needed. Help seeking is a powerful skill and relatively easy to teach. We all need it. Our nation’s schools should teach it.
Immediately double the capacity of mental health and substance abuse programs.
I joined the call to increase the capacity of the mental health system to be able to respond to the millions of children who struggle with anxiety, depression, aggression, substance abuse, and a host of even more serious mental challenges. But I also emphasized a point that had not been made enough in my view: the population most likely to be excluded from the mental health system is children and adults with developmental disabilities. Far too often, mental health professionals are not able to offer care to this group either because they haven’t been trained to do so or because the research is too thin to equip them with good interventions. We ought to improve training and research in the mental health challenges of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities immediately. Professionals refer to people who have both down syndrome and depression or autism and anxiety disorders as people with “dual diagnosis.” The reality is that they are often people with diagnoses but no help. That ought to change.
These points were all made powerfully and both the Attorney General and Secretary Sebelius listened and promised to report to the Vice President and in turn, to the President. If there was one headline that was echoed across all the comments, I think it was that stigma remains a scourge for those with mental illness–that heartbreaking shame and isolation accompany these illnesses, making them far worse than they already are and making them often unbearable. Our response to the unspeakable tragedy of Newtown must go beyond interventions for the rare and terribly sick individuals who commit such horrific crimes to addressing the ways in which we can–as people–open our hearts to the full range of human experience which includes both physical and mental challenges. There is nothing wrong with being sick–no matter what the illness is; but there’s a lot wrong with hiding illness and we ought to stop doing so. To end the stigma of mental illness is to give healing a chance. Now is the time.
Finally, I want to emphasize one point which I think often gets overlooked at times of crisis like this one: government can and must do a better job of protecting children by designing better systems, laws, and enforcement mechanisms. But government can do even more if our leaders challenge citizens to be part of the solution. If we want our children to be more safe and to grow up in communities that are safe, welcoming, and healthy, we need to ask young people themselves to help us do that. The response to Newtown should not be just about guns or ammunition or even mental health professionals. It should also be about how professionals can empower young people to seize this moment in our nation’s history and be leaders themselves.
No group of young people has been better at proving this point than the youth leaders of Special Olympics Project Unify. All over the country, young leaders of Special Olympics Project Unify are the ones asking their peers to end the isolation of children with intellectual disabilities, to end humiliating language, to stop bullying and to play unified and live unified too. They’ve gotten help from adults. They’ve received support from the global Special Olympics family and from places like the US Department of Education and from generous donors like Ray and Stephanie Lane. But with very little money and guidance, they’ve created change in schools where generations of adults and professionals had failed. They’ve reduced bullying, they’ve improved climate, they’ve championed a healthy and inclusive culture of compassion and welcome.
Whatever President Obama choses to do in the face of this pain soaked moment, I hope it includes a commitment to empower and challenge young people themselves to lead. More than anything, that would ensure that all those children and innocent people of Newtown who died would have given their lives to a new generation of young people who can create a more safe and healing country.