Guest Opinions

Guest Opinion: Prevention key to helping teens avoid violence

Nikolas Cruz sits in the courtroom during an arraigned at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Wednesday, March 14, 2018. Cruz is accused of opening fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14, killing 17 students and adults. The Benton-Franklin Health District is promoting programs to help prevent teen violence.
Nikolas Cruz sits in the courtroom during an arraigned at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Wednesday, March 14, 2018. Cruz is accused of opening fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14, killing 17 students and adults. The Benton-Franklin Health District is promoting programs to help prevent teen violence. AP

This week is National Public Health Week, and this year the focus is that everyone deserves to live a long and healthy life in a safe environment.

It’s a daunting goal in the face of recent tragedies with the seemingly unrelenting exposure to violence — homicides, suicides, and the mass violence of school shootings.

The evidence from Adverse Childhood Experiences studies suggests that, without protective factors to promote resilience, the trauma of exposure to school shootings or to the chronic fear of school shootings, the result is that children will suffer mental illness, substance use disorders, chronic disease, and reducing lifespans and quality of life.

The key is that both violence and the toxic effects of exposure to violence are preventable.

In the aftermath of these tragedies, much of the national discussion has focused on the need for expanding mental health treatment services. While it is vital to ensure that people who need help have access to treatment, it is just as important to identify and prevent the causes of mental illness.

Mental illness is a chronic disease, not a character flaw. A prevention-based approach can have greater impact in the same way that preventing heart disease is more effective than just treating heart attacks.

Part of that prevention-based approach is developing social emotional literacy. This is especially important for boys and young men who are bombarded by images of movie heroes brandishing power through weapons and who are told to “be a man” instead of being encouraged to understand their emotions.

Research shows that boys are more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, binge drink, stay out of school, commit a violent crime, and take their own lives.

Where and how can we combat the messages young people are receiving that cause them to use violence to solve problems, and how can we help them to build resilience and healthy coping skills?

For example, the sports field can be a place where dominance, control and aggression are often encouraged. Harmful attitudes and behavior toward women are often dismissed as “locker room talk” or “boys will be boys.”

Expressing feelings is seen as being too feminine, although neither emotional openness nor women should ever be seen as weak. Coaches are in an incredibly influential position to either reinforce or combat unhealthy views of masculinity.

The Coaching Boys into Men (CBIM) Program developed by Futures Without Violence is an evidence-based prevention program that trains and motivates high school coaches to teach their young male athletes healthy relationship skills and that violence never equals strength.

By meeting boys and young men where they are and showing them how to manage emotions and anger, we can begin to counter these negative images and help them to be their whole, authentic selves and to develop healthy relationships.

Benton-Franklin Health District in partnership with Washington State Coalition against Domestic Violence and CBIM is providing a free training using the principles of the Coaching Boys into Men program. The session is April 16 and already has a waiting list, which highlights the interest and need.

The Health District will also be hosting the Washington Firearm Tragedy Prevention Network meeting on Thursday, June 14. The Network was created in 2016 to provide a forum for organizations and individuals from a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds to work together to prevent firearm tragedies. For more information on the Network or to register to attend the meeting, go to the network’s website.

The American Public Health Association has outlined a comprehensive public health approach to keep families and communities safe which focuses on primary prevention to stop the transmission of violence that has become epidemic in our society.

It includes better tracking of gun-related deaths and injuries, research to understand the causes of gun violence and evaluate the success of interventions, identification of risk factors (poverty and depression) and resilience or protective factors that guard against gun violence (youth access to trusted adults), and institutionalizing successful prevention strategies.

Enhanced school-based prevention, improved gun safety, common-sense gun policies and increased access to mental health services are all part of this comprehensive approach. There’s a role for each of us to protect children from violence, whether in our own families, in our jobs as teachers, coaches, doctors, crossing guards, or in our communities as political and business leaders.

Dr. Amy Person is health officer of the Benton-Franklin Health District.

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