Searching for answers in the wake of Friday's , people may confuse mental illness with being emotionally disturbed—but one does not necessarily lead to the other, says a Brooklyn mental health expert.
"As a nation, we are all struggling to understand what happened," says Dr. Jason Hershberger, Chief of Psychiatry at Downstate Long Island College Hospital. "But a severe emotional disturbance can happen to someone who is mentally ill and someone who isn’t. People often confuse that."
Those who are dealing with major mental illnesses respond to events like the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the way everyone else does, continued the doctor. Hershberger urges using sensitivity when approaching conversations with a family member who has a mental health issue.
"Figure out what they know, speak plainly and listen to his or her thoughts or reactions to it," he says. "Let the conversation guide itself. Give them space to come to you or open the discussion if they want to."
One point of difference that may exist in such a dialogue is that someone who self-identifies as having a mental illness wonders if the tragic event increases the stigma already attached to it, he points out.
To that, Hershberger reiterates, "this is not something that is caused by mental illness; this is something an individual decides to do for his or her own reasons."
If you think that a family member may be a risk himself or to others, there are psychiatric and clinical services available at LICH and other neighborhood locations for both the individual and caretakers.
"It's important to get the child or adult in treatment and participate in that treatment," says Hershberger, "because that in the end will reduce the risk of something happening."