United Way, mental health groups prep members for post-Newtown media blitz

WASHINGTON: Various industry groups are working with the media to ensure that the topics of mental health and social services aren't eclipsed by gun control after the tragic elementary school shooting in Newtown, CT, on Friday.

WASHINGTON: Various industry groups are working with the media to ensure that the topics of mental health and social services aren't eclipsed by gun control after the tragic elementary school shooting in Newtown, CT, on Friday.

United Way of Western Connecticut has been so inundated with media inquiries following the tragedy that it has reached out to other branches for PR support, according to Wilhelm Meierling, director of media and PR at United Way Worldwide.

The Western Connecticut branch, which is fewer than 14 miles away from Sandy Hook Elementary School, is also considering bringing on agency support, although those conversations are just beginning, he added.

It has focused on United Way of Western Connecticut's partnership with Newtown Savings Bank to create the “Sandy Hook School Support Fund” that will provide services to families and other members of the community that have been affected. It is also helping to bring together various stakeholder groups for a more organized response to the tragedy.

United Way's goal is to get affected people the social services support or counseling services they need, making its response different from other groups after a tragedy.

“United Way is about mid-term and long-term support. We aren't water bottles or mosquito nets, we're work-force retraining, job counseling, and post-traumatic stress disorder counseling,” Meierling said.

Various trade groups are also doing their part to highlight mental health services. The American Psychiatric Association has put materials on its site about how to talk with children about the shootings. It has also provided tips for both parents and professionals about restoring a sense of safety in the aftermath of a mass shooting.

The American Psychological Association has given the media the names of some members to discuss how to deal with trauma. It's also giving people a channel to talk about their feelings through social media.

The same groups are also attempting to answer difficult questions about what role mental illness may have played in the killer's motives. It has been widely reported that Adam Lanza had some sort of mental disorder, possibly Asperger's syndrome, which is a high-functioning form of autism.

“We're trying to get reporters to experts who can speak to, in a general sense, what developmental challenges might lead to someone to this kind of behavior,” said Kim Mills, deputy executive director of public and member communications at the American Psychological Association.

Most of the inquires the American Psychiatric Association has received have focused on one question.

“What everyone wants to know is what motivated the shooter, something we can't comment on because there is no immediate knowledge of his state of mind,” said Eve Herold, director of communications at the association.

To help its members with this kind of question, the trade group released a disaster kit with tips on how they should respond to media inquiries.

Other groups are discussing the dwindling safety net there is for people suffering from mental illness in the US.  

“It's sad that violent tragedies have to occur before people realize that the mental healthcare system is broken and needs to be fixed,” said Katrina Gay, director of communications for the National Alliance for Mental Illness. “The Healthcare System has been slashed, faced draconian cuts, erased, and eroded.” 

Her organization's outreach has been mostly reactionary – Gay's office received 40 media calls on Monday alone. Yet from a proactive standpoint, it is publishing blog posts and other original content on its sites. People dealing with mental illness are also posting blogs to the site.

While all three organizations have been swamped with calls, none have obtained agency support.

In related news, the National Rifle Association has been silent since Friday's school shooting.

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