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Far more can be done to prevent school shootings

How does a 14-year-old kid obtain a firearm that he takes to school and turns on five friends and himself?

My heart goes out to the families of the victims as well as to the family of Jaylen Fryberg, the freshman who opened fire in Marysville-Pilchuck High School last month. When will we say enough is enough? A lot more can be done to prevent such tragedies than we are doing.

Much is still unknown about this latest tragedy, but likely an undiagnosed and untreated mental health disorder will be implicated. Many kids are struggling with emotional and behavioral health problems – a staggering 20 percent of American children suffer from a diagnosable mental illness during a given year. But only a fraction of these children are identified early and receive mental health services.

The vast majority of these kids will never be violent towards others, but many will have thoughts about suicide, attempt suicide or die by suicide.

Consider these statistics from the Centers for Disease Control:

• Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in the United States.

• Eight percent say they have attempted suicide in the previous 12 months.

• Six percent report having seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months.

It is likely that Jaylen Fryberg had thoughts about suicide before he planned this massacre. Research on murder-suicide shows the majority of perpetrators showed suicidal thoughts prior to the murder-suicide.

So it’s possible that intervening to prevent youth and adult suicide – devastating tragedies in and of themselves – could also help avoid massacres such as the one in Marysville.

But, here is what we will need to do to get there:

• Increase recognition and referral of kids who are struggling with emotional and behavioral health concerns. Time is of the essence. Early intervention is critical and may lessen the severity of long-term mental health problems down the road. Those who interact with kids on a regular basis (i.e., teachers, parents) need to know warning signs and act quickly when behaviors change. Kids need to be trained to absorb the mantra, if you suspect a friend is struggling and needs help, ask an adult to intervene right away.

• To identify kids who are struggling, we need to respond to all signs and clues where kids leave them. Think social media. Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can help by streamlining mechanisms to file reports about concerned 'friends' and by providing resources to 'friends' on how to intervene when there are posts that are of concern to them.

• Ensure services are available for kids who are struggling. There are enormous gaps in the health system's capacity to address the psychiatric needs of youth. We need to expand the number of kid-focused behavioral health professionals and by getting schools more closely tied into the delivery of behavioral health services, such as through school-based health centers.

Schools also have the potential to promote the emotional health and wellness of their students early on, before problems arise, through the use of existing curricula designed to help students build resilience, problem-solve and to regulate their emotions.

• And, what the hell with the guns? How is it possible, or OK, for a 14-year-old to access a firearm except perhaps under the most limited of circumstances where there is an excess of parental supervision and a game-hunting motivation?

It is high time we got serious about changing the norms in our culture in support of greater gun safety and responsibility. Washington is behind other states in not having child access prevention laws that require gun owners to store their weapons in such a way to prevent access by minors without appropriate supervision.

The public health message is long overdue: Know the warning signs and risk factors for suicide, and prevent access to guns by people who are struggling.

Jaylen Fryberg's life and those of his five friends are part of the price we continue to pay for our collective inaction.

Jennifer Stuber, Ph.D., is a faculty member at the University of Washington School of Social Work. She lost her husband to a firearm suicide in 2011.