Tomorrow’s Hope

May 24, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend was a memorable day–the day that my friend, and health policy wonk, Adam Dougherty’s life changed forever.

Arguably one of the most important days of his life, my good friend was crossing a major threshold, another chapter of adulthood; Saturday, May 24 was his wedding day. A weekend capped with family and friends; emotional highs soaring and a union of two souls who truly completed each other. I couldn’t be happier for him and his lovely bride, a sentiment shared by everyone in attendance.

Little did we know what took place the night before. We can only imagine the lowest of lows that many families and friends experienced on May 23.

The shootings in UCSB’s neighborhood of Isla Vista on May 23 caused many ripples. Ripples which continue to affect the lives of the victims, survivors along with their family and friends. 6 victims killed, 13 injured and the death of the shooter.

I write this piece now only a few weeks after the one-month anniversary of the tragedy and days since the shooter’s father, Peter Rodger was interviewed by Barbara Walters. A truly heart-breaking story on both sides. The emotional damage produced on the victims’ families and friends is nothing I will ever be able to comprehend. But little did I know, the torment of Mr. Rodger is as remarkable. He only agreed to an interview to shed light on their situation, hoping to prevent any more unnecessary violence and bloodshed. Can any lessons be learned? Can action be taken? Mr. Rodger hopes so.

Calls for new legislation on gun control and mental health were once again on news headlines after the shooting. As they were after the Sandy Hook shooting and the other shootings before it. Progress on either issue, unfortunately, is minimal, if at all, and anger at Congress’ inaction continues.

Mr. Rodger acknowledges that his son Elliot had serious problems. After his divorce with Elliot’s mother, Elliot started therapy at age 8. As the years passed, he noticed that Elliot grew more isolated. And at 18, legally an adult and independent, he made his own decisions regarding his health and well-being, deeming mental health care unnecessary. Mental illness, left untreated, has dire consequences. Elliot was another individual who slipped through the cracks. An individual who wrote a 107-thousand word, 137-page manifesto that chronicled his suffering. And later posting a video describing his planned attack in detail.

Were there warning signs earlier? Mr. Rodger says yes. He concedes that he thought his son could be suicidal, but did not imagine he would be homicidal. But even if the warning signs were acted upon, what can health professionals really do if an individual refuses care?

As a public health professional, I whole-heartedly believe in prevention efforts. But could this have been prevented? Could any of the other mass slayings have been prevented? Stronger gun control or mental health policies may be part of the solution. Mental Health America currently has 11 legislative priorities for this year. While I see the merits of both types of policy recourse, realistically, there are never guarantees. Stronger policies have the potential to help reduce this happening in the future, but at the end of the day, though, it is the individual that ultimately decides his own fate.

In his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, best selling author Donald Miller hit a wall personally. Without purpose, but full of internal questions and self-reflection, he realizes that everyone needs a role to play and “…we have to force ourselves to create these scenes. We have to get up off the couch and turn the television off, we have to blow up the inner-tubes and head to the river.” As masters of our own fate, it is our responsibility to contribute to the community around us – to be productive citizens. A supportive environment with positive role models may have nurtured and encouraged Elliot to another path. National programs such as Miller’s The Mentoring Project and President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative are great examples of interventions that can complement policies on gun control and mental health – programs that focus on developing caring and responsible individuals. I would be remiss if I did not recognize the important work done in local communities through outreach and service. One such program, led by Darrell Sabbs at Phoebe Putney Health System, a local champion of Men’s Health Network in Albany, Georgia, trains and guides teen boys and men on a variety of fatherhood issues.

With the July 4th holiday behind us, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect what patriotism means to you. I look forward to the day when tragedies such as the UCSB shooting and dozens of others are a thing of the past. I look forward to the day when mental health care becomes as common as treating other debilitating diseases such as cancer and diabetes. I look forward to the day when patriotism is the act of being a productive citizen AND maintaing one’s own health and well-being. Until then, we work for progress.

“Tomorrow hopes we have learned something from today” – John Wayne.

Ramon P. Llamas, MPH, CHES

View posts by Ramon P. Llamas, MPH, CHES
Ramon holds a Masters in Public Health degree with an emphasis on health promotion and health education from the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and a BS in biological sciences and biomedical engineering from the University of California, Irvine. He is a member of the Men's Health Caucus of the American Public Health Association. His background includes health promotion at the US DHHS in Washington, DC and Director of Programs for Men's Health Network.
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