Nearly a dozen people representing agencies throughout the city of Pasadena congregated in Travis Auditorium at Fuller Seminary on February 11 to discuss how the community can address mental health and gun violence.
Representatives from city government agencies, including Mayor Bill Bogaard and Police Chief Phillip Sanchez, gave presentations at the community-wide conference hosted by Fuller and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
"We stand in the shadow of Sandy Hook," said Winston Gooden, dean of Fuller's School of Psychology. It was the shooting tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut that stimulated the idea for a community event, he explained.
Gooden opened the event with prayer, which remembered the victims, parents, and families of recent tragedies. Gooden asked God to bless those attending the day-long event who will go back to do work in the community.
The morning presentations were marked by similar sentiments--expressions of how important it is for the community to stand together against violence, and to increase mental health in the city, including the de-stigmatization of the mentally ill.
Dr. Marvin Southard, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, said the meeting was important because the issue of mental health and violence is not an individual effort, but a community effort.
"That's what you're doing here today. You're laying the network for us to begin to have a kind of community that builds health, including mental health," he said.
Pasadena's Mayor Bill Bogaard addressed the issue of curbing gun violence.
"The question is: do we have the courage to take new actions to regulate the use of guns?" Bogaard asked. He used an analogy that likened guns to cars. He said if cars are regulated in order to ensure safety of those who use them, there should also be regulations for guns to curb gun violence.
Police Chief Phillip Sanchez agreed that new initiatives, such as gun buyback programs, can be somewhat effective. A Los Angeles County department that announced a buyback program received 1,600 firearms in one day, he said. However, he noted that if buyback programs are not coupled with education, efforts will fall short of the mark.
"Violence must be addressed as a holistic issue rather than gun violence as an outcropping of those issues," Sanchez said. He concluded by saying that the community
needs to change from seeing violence as "someone else's issue" to a
culture of action.
"Government policing is not absence of community itself," he said. "You are the greatest vanguard to any of these institutions."
Eric Walsh, director of the Pasadena Public Health Department, emphasized that violence has many causes, and regulating guns and improving mental health are not the only solutions.
"It's a far deeper problem that needs to be addressed," Walsh said. He listed poverty, lack of jobs, lack of education, lack of hope, and the availability of alcohol and other substances as examples of things that can also lead to violence. Addressing those problems can help to give people hope, and skills to function in society in a mature way, he said.
Many of the speakers noted that the faith community can play a crucial role in both addressing mental health and helping to curb violence.
"There is an absence of God. There is godlessness as opposed to godliness," Chief Sanchez said. He hoped that the community would act to change society.
Southard said that when it comes to prevention the faith community is key.
"That is the special challenge and gift of faith communities in this particular time in society, for us to find ways where we can do the work to make sure that those who have been excluded find a place on the inside," he said.
Walsh agreed, noting that the faith community can remind kids of who they are--how precious and special they are.
Dr. Gunnar Christiansen, director of faith outreach for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the faith community can help with mental health outreach by bringing understanding, love, and compassionate care to the equation.
He explained at length how the stigma of mental illness is a devious and powerful force. The antidote, he says, is spiritual strength--conviction that God loves us even in the darkest times. Full participation in a place of worship can be a major factor in elevating the self-esteem and self-confidence of a mentally ill person.
"The faith community as a whole is a sleeping giant. We must be alarm clocks," Christiansen said. "Unless we accept the challenge to awaken the sleeping giant, I believe the vast majority of congregations will continue sleeping and stigma will continue."
He ended his presentation by saying, "We are our brother's keeper."
The local education community has been invigorated to address the issue of violence.
Fuller's Human Resources representatives Eric Jessen and BJ Barber gave a brief report on what some higher education institutions are doing.
Both the California Institute of Technology and Fuller Seminary have on-site counseling centers for students and employees. CalTech also has a crisis prevention team that meets regularly, Jessen said. Pasadena City College formed a task force as a response to the Sandy Hook shooting and is creating a plan for what to do in active shooter situations. The school will be working to train all the students and staff on how to respond.
In addition to on-site counseling by licensed clinicians, Fuller has chaplains available to provide support to students, staff, and the larger community. It has also reemphasized its active shooter policies in the three dominant languages of the school: Korean, English, and Spanish. Joint training sessions and drills with Kaiser Permanente are in the works.
Eric Sahakian, director of child welfare for the Pasadena Unified School District, said teachers and counselors are working to update K-12 school safety plans. One of the top priorities is to encourage positive pupil interpersonal relations, and teaching students socially appropriate responses to violence, he said.
PUSD is also emphasizing prevention and intervention. It has also developed connections with mental health programs, and recently received a $1.2 million grant to hire social workers and clinical workers to be deployed to area elementary schools.
But he noted that the schools can't lead the effort alone.
"I appreciate the community outreach and look forward to further collaboration," he said.