Five Signs That Could Save a Life

Another horrible school shooting. 

Like you, I’m wondering why the hell this happens and what we can do for it to never happen again. Maybe like you, I also recognize it’s a complicated issue that will need to be addressed from several angles.

In the aftermath, it has been learned that the shooter demonstrated some behaviors and made some statements that were troubling. For many in the school, there is shock in what happened, but not necessarily in who the perpetrator was. Clearly, someone who acts in this way is unhealthy mentally and emotionally and likely has lived in that state for a long time before he opened fire. 

Now, this isn’t to cast aspersions on those who may have noticed some troubling signs but didn’t act upon them. Who knows what you or I might have done with similar information. In addition, no person who chooses to shoot up a school fits into a formula of detection. There are others (thousands more) in our society who struggle with what the shooter may have struggled with, but don’t lash out in such a violent way. 

Could he have been stopped by something as simple as a caring conversation some months earlier? Hard to tell. 

I’ll leave the discussions about guns to another blog. This blog is about organizational living, especially as expressed in the college fraternity and sorority experience. In that way, it is also about the dynamics that occur when we live in community with other people…be that a fraternity, or a school, or a workplace, or a family. Community life calls upon us all to take care of each other. 

If a brother or sister of yours were to clutch their chest and show symptoms of a heart condition, we’d call 911. If a brother or sister breaks their hand, we will get them to an emergency room. But, if a brother or sister is struggling with another organ – their brain – we don’t always act as quickly. Likely because we don’t understand the signs or are scared by ideas like depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and suicide. 

I was recently introduced to a simple and effective tool that all fraternity and sorority members should understand and utilize in this regard. 

The tool comes from an organization called The Campaign to Change Direction, whose purpose is expressed as follows: 
The Change Direction initiative is a collection of concerned citizens, nonprofit leaders, and leaders from the private sector who have come together to change the culture in America about mental health, mental illness, and wellness. This initiative was inspired by the discussion at the White House National Conference on Mental Health in 2013, which came on the heels of the Newtown, Conn. tragedy. 

If you recall, Newtown is where Sandy Hook Elementary is, which was the worst school massacre in American history. 

The campaign has developed the Five Signs, which is a simple way to help us all be more observant towards the plight of those we are in community with. Noticing these signs can help deter the severe consequences of someone who becomes mentally and/or emotionally unstable.

The Five Signs and the description from The Campaign to Change Direction for each are as follows:
Personality Change 
Their personality changes. You may notice sudden or gradual changes in the way that someone typically behaves. He or she may behave in ways that don't seem to fit the person's values, or the person may just seem different. 

They seem uncharacteristically angry, anxious, agitated, or moody. You may notice the person has more frequent problems controlling his or her temper and seems irritable or unable to calm down. People in more extreme situations of this kind may be unable to sleep or may explode in anger at a minor problem.
They withdraw or isolate themselves from other people. Someone who used to be socially engaged may pull away from family and friends and stop taking part in activities he or she used to enjoy. In more severe cases the person may start failing to make it to work or school. Not to be confused with the behavior of someone who is more introverted, this sign is marked by a change in someone's typical sociability, as when someone pulls away from the social support he or she typically has. 

Poor Self-Care 
You may notice a change in the person's level of personal care or an act of poor judgment. For instance, someone may let personal hygiene deteriorate, or the person may start abusing alcohol or illicit substances or engaging in other self destructive behavior that may alienate loved ones.

They seem overcome with hopelessness and overwhelmed by their circumstances. Have you noticed someone who used to be optimistic and now can’t find anything to be hopeful about? That person may be suffering from extreme or prolonged grief, or feelings of worthlessness or guilt. People in this situation may say that the world would be better off without them, suggesting suicidal thinking.

Let’s be honest: many of us walk the other way at such signs because we don’t want to create an issue if one doesn’t really exist. Yes, perhaps we get burned by reaching out to a brother who is showing these signs but it’s related to something else, or they are in denial about them. We might be judged as intrusive and it could impact the friendship we have with this person. 

But the consequences of inaction are far worse. 

Should they get mad, here is an easy retort: “I’m your brother/sister dammit, and checking in on you is my job.”

Knowing the signs is one thing, but then what? Very likely you are not a trained counselor or therapist, and you should NEVER try to be. Be with them and supportive of them as you help them find a professional who can help. If you are reading this from a college campus, stop right now and look up where you counseling center is located. Here are some helpful hotlines as well.

How much different could our history and current situations be if more people were willing to fight through the fear of reaching out and more willing to have the vulnerability to throw themselves in front of a person who is traveling a dangerous path and say “I love you and I’m not going to let you go there.” 

Thank you to the Campaign to Change Direction for bringing attention to this issue. I’m sure they would welcome a national fraternity/sorority (or several) to their list of sponsoring organizations. Mental health, depression, suicide, and all associated issues are all significantly prevalent in today’s fraternity and sorority. One of the outcomes of tragedy is that it tends to wake us up.

This is a call for all of us to stay awake this time, and truly discover what it means to help each other. 

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