The Importance of Mental Health

On Monday, October 24, 2022, a school shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis, Mo., claimed the lives of two people. In direct contrast to the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, earlier this year, it sounds like all proper precautions were in place. The doors were locked. The school had a proper security checkpoint and school resource officers on duty. The principal used a code phrase over the PA system—“Miles Davis is in the building”—to announce to faculty that an active shooter was in the building. Law enforcement arrived within four minutes and engaged the shooter eleven minutes after the incident’s beginning, according to national news.

And still, despite all the planning and preparation, two people died. The victims were student Alexandria Bell, 15, and health & physical education teacher Jean Kuczka, 61. Against the backdrop of the recent rash of school shootings in the U.S., two victims is a pretty low number in terms of raw data. But from the human standpoint, a set of parents lost their daughter. A daughter lost her mother. Jean’s daughter Abigail told local news that her mother was looking forward to retiring in a few years. Two victims is still two too many.

CNN reports that the St. Louis shooter, Orlando Harris, left a handwritten note in his car detailing his motivation for the attack. “I don’t have any friends. I don’t have any family. I’ve never had a girlfriend. I’ve never had a social life. I’ve been an isolated loner my entire life,” read the note, according to St. Louis police commissioner Michael Sack.

I recently participated in a panel discussion on the topic of active shooters for the Campus Security & Life Safety Virtual Summit. The tail end of the conversation turned to role of mental health and related resources in preventing further incidents from occurring. Being a teenager is tough enough as it is—we’ve all been there. But coming of age during a pandemic, spending your high-school years learning remotely from your bedroom, scrolling through social media instead of sitting with peers in the cafeteria, has probably had a distinct psychological effect whose depths we’re just beginning to uncover.

This might be an odd segue, but my dad is an airline pilot, and I watched the post-9/11 airport security revolution unfold in real time. Gone were the days of dropping your bags on a conveyor belt and stepping through a metal detector without breaking stride. Almost overnight, we were unpacking half our belongings, stripping off shoes and belts and sweatshirts, subjecting ourselves to TSA pat-downs, and so on. The intent was to prevent anything even remotely suspicious from making it onto the airplane—and rightfully so.

I was 13 at the time and spent a lot of my leisure time in shopping malls. I remember sitting in the food court on a particularly busy Saturday, watching masses of people streaming from store to store, up and down escalators, waiting in 15-minute lines to get into a movie or place an order at Auntie Anne’s pretzels. And I remember thinking how odd it was that airports were suddenly in full lockdown mode but that this bustling center of commerce was completely unprotected. Anybody could wander in with a gun or a bomb and just start killing.

I suppose my point is that it’s almost impossible to stop one single determined individual from doing what he or she wants to do. All the security precautions and policies and procedures and technology in the world can’t keep one person, somewhere, from slipping through the cracks. Instead of seeking to fill every possible hole, we should be focused on preventing students from getting to that mental place where they feel they need to act out in the first place. That means mental health resources. Reaching out to students who don’t look like they’re doing well. Being receptive to students who ask for help. Recognizing and curing early symptoms of the disease instead of just focusing on the aftermath.

This article originally appeared in the November / December 2022 issue of Campus Security Today.