Updated: Aug 7, 2018
By now, the Bloomin’ Boomers generation has seen enough sunsets to know that not everything in life is fun and games. The inevitable tragic side of life strikes without warning, regardless of how positive we try to remain. May 18, 2018 will forever be remembered as the day that Santa Fe High School lost eight students and two faculty members, needlessly. The incident marks the 22nd school shooting in the US for the year. According to a CNN report (May 18, 2018), “There has been, on average, one school shooting every week this year.”
As Baby Boomers, we fortunately grew up in a latchkey environment where unlocked doors did not increase the odds of finding ourselves the subject of an Amber alert; you could pretty much travel the world knowing there was a better than average probability you’d get home in one piece; and leaving the car unlocked while you went into the local mom-and-pop convenience store to grab a snack and a Coke didn’t mean you stood a good chance of finding your car missing before you had the chance to tear off the cellophane corner from your sleeve of Tom’s peanuts.
And even though we hid under our desks during the “duck and cover” drills of the Cold War era, we knew, for the most part, we were not going to be harmed in school— at least, not by our peers.
Bloomin’ Boomers welcomes guest blogger Dr. Ken Baker, a Brenham, Texas pediatrician who has dedicated the past 36 years of his life to keeping our children (and now, grandchildren) healthy, both mentally and physically. In our “Ask the Expert” segment, we turn to Dr. Baker for his perspective and views on why there has been such a rapid rise in teen depression, suicide, violence and hopelessness over the past 10 years, and what he feels needs to be done to keep our students safe.
The Connection Between Mental Health and School Shootings
By Dr. Ken Baker
Another month, and we’ve gotten news about another school shooting. These have happened so regularly, we seem to take them in stride now: a brief flurry of sympathy and grief, a slightly longer flurry of “gun control” speeches, then life goes on … until the next shooting.
As a pediatrician who has cared for children for nearly 40 years; as a parent with grown children; and as grandparent with several young grandchildren, these events are deeply distressing. Losing a child’s life for any reason is tragic; having them taken so senselessly and violently is beyond comprehension.
Everyone recognizes there is a serious problem, and we all wish there was a simple solution. The first, knee-jerk response is always to strengthen gun control, which in some respects could be a positive and logical step, and in other respects makes as much sense as banning cars to reduce drunk driving.
The truth is, though, that gun control is a political expedient- a sound bite that seems like a good idea, but just kicks the real problems down the road. Most of the young shooters obtained their guns from their parents, who purchased them legally. No controls would alter that. The real sources of these shootings are much more difficult to deal with, and will be more complicated and expensive to fix.
As a health care professional, it seems to me that the real roots of this problem are to be found in mental health, and the lack of it. All of these shooters, by definition, would be found mentally ill or unstable. Some of them were identified as being unstable ahead of time, and in need of therapy. But none of them, to my knowledge, actually received it.
The truth is that mental health care is in seriously short supply at this time. We spend billions of dollars on adult medicine, especially surgical procedures; and there are lots of doctors who can replace your knee or treat your diabetes. But try to find a psychiatrist, psychologist, or licensed professional counselor, and you will find a much shorter list. Then look for one who will take your insurance (or ANY insurance), and the list shrinks even farther. Then from those, try to find someone who will see a teenager or child. The task is almost impossible!
In a ranking of US states, Texas has the 8th highest level of mental illness, and the 3rd LOWEST access to mental health care. More than a quarter million Texas teens suffer a major depressive episode every year, and only a third of them will ever get treated. More than a million Texans 12 and up have alcohol dependence, and a half million have a drug dependence.
Not only does Texas have a high rate of teen mental illness, and very limited access to care, but the numbers are getting bigger every year:
There were 50% more teens with a Major Depressive Episode in 2015 than 2011.
Suicide in girls 12-14 tripled from 2011 to 2015.
Suicide in girls 15-19 doubled from 2011 to 2015.
Students report higher rates of loneliness and hopelessness.
On the positive side, teen pregnancy rates are lower, alcohol and tobacco use are down, and as a group they have a stronger work ethic.
Almost any health worker who cares for teens will tell you that the level of stress, anxiety, depression, and isolation have increased significantly in teens over the past 10-15 years. One has to ask: What has changed? What factors have played a role in making these issues worse for today’s teenagers?
There have been no dramatic political or economic upheavals to account for the stress. There HAVE been two factors that may have played a role:
1. The invention of the smart phone in 2008. Teens (and many adults) spend 6-8 hours a day on their phones. While this gives them access to vast amounts of information, and connects them electronically with potentially more people than ever before, it also eliminates much of their face-to-face interactions. Social media use leaves people feeling more lonely, rather than less. Multiple studies have shown that people who reduce their social media use actually feel happier and more connected to friends.
2. First-person-shooter video games. The number of video games that include violent activity has increased dramatically over the past 10-15 years. The child and adolescent brain is not fully developed yet, and the disconnect between fantasy and real life is not firmly established. It has been estimated that by the time a child is 18, he will have seen 15,000 simulated deaths on TV, movies, and video games. How this affects the growing brain is unclear, but certainly worrisome.
So, given all the discouraging news, what can a parent do? One thing is easy: stay involved in your teen’s activities, know who his friends are, know where he is at night. Watch for signs of stress and depression. (See the sidebar for screening test links that can be helpful.) If you see worrisome signs, seek help from a trusted adult advisor.
The second thing is MUCH more difficult, but likely more important. Try to limit time spent in front of a screen, especially on social media. The current recommendation is 1-1 ½ hr per day. Encourage face-to-face interactions, school extracurricular activities, and healthy friendships.
Banning guns won’t stop disturbed people from committing violence, but recognizing and treating mental illness may make all of our children safer and happier. KB
Dr Ken Baker was born in Galveston, and grew up on the Gulf Coast. He received a BS in Psychology from the University of Houston, and attended medical school at University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston. After his pediatric residency at UTMB, he joined the Brenham Clinic in 1982, and has been a pediatrician there for
36 years. He is married to Daphne, who was a labor and delivery nurse in Brenham.
How you can help the victims of the Santa Fe School incident:
Santa Fe High School Victims’ Fund:
Support the Victims of Santa Fe Fund:
Love for Santa Fe Fund:
And above all, please take the time to contact our U.S. Representatives.
Here is a comprehensive list of their contact information:
For a parental checklist/screening tools for signs and symptoms, please visit
For a comprehensive, nationwide directory of children's counselors ages 6-10, pre-teen 11-13, and teenagers 14-19, please visit Psychology Today's recommended list of therapists.
I would like to give a very special thanks to Dr. Ken Baker and to my on-site photographer for this post, Jamie Rust of Coastal Belle Photography. Not only is Jamie an excellent photographer, she is also a mother of three children— and she's my daughter-in-law.
***Photos may not be used without expressed written consent of the photographer.
All photos property of Coastal Belle Photography; © 2018.
Respectful comments and responses, including differing opinions, are welcome. Not all guest bloggers posts will reflect my personal feelings, but their thoughts and written contributions are welcome because of their knowledge, experience and wisdom on a given topic. If you desire to be a guest on this site, please contact Bloomin' Boomers.