It’s hard to believe that our nation is once again dealing with the aftermath of a shocking act of violence. On March 9th, Albert Wong, a decorated post 9–11 combat veteran, walked into the Pathway Home non-profit organization in Yountville, California that serves veterans with Post Traumatic Stress. He took hostages, shot and killed three women and then took his own life.
It is unlikely that these deaths could have been avoided by a change to our current gun laws. I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t continue the important discussions that have begun since the mass shooting in Parkland Florida — that conversation is critical — but this horrific event reminds us — yet again — that there are other critical issues that must be addressed if we hope to prevent future tragedies.
We will learn more in the coming days about this senseless act — information that may shed light on the specific factors that led this man to take the lives of those who worked at the treatment facility where he had received care.
And we will learn more about the women whose lives were taken — about their compassion and dedication — from those who knew and loved them. There are no words that can ease the unbearable pain that their families are experiencing. I hope their communities wrap around them, watch out for them and support them — not just during the initial days of their grief but for as long as they need to heal from their devastating losses.
Reports from the woman who helped raise Albert Wong, shared that he suffered significant losses early in his life — the death of his father and the serious illness of his mother that left her unable to care for him when he was six years old. His guardian described him as “pretty happy-go-lucky” kid who had several role models in the military, which is why, in 1998, he decided to join the Army Reserve to serve his country. In 2010 Wong signed up for active duty and was deployed in April 2011 to Afghanistan where he earned the Expert Marksman Badge.
As a psychologist and the founder of Give an Hour, an organization that has provided free mental health services to those who serve, their families and their communities for 13 years, there is so much about this tragedy that is particularly heartbreaking.
First and foremost is the loss of three women, dedicated and compassionate individuals who had focused their skills and expertise on efforts to heal veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — veterans who had returned home with invisible wounds of war such as post-traumatic stress.
Two of the woman who died were psychologists — forty-two-year-old Jennifer Golick and thirty-two-year-old Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba. Dr. Golick, who joined the Pathway Home program in 2017, had spent her professional life providing care and support to those with mental health challenges. She spent her off hours volunteering for another nonprofit organization that provides service dogs to those in need. We learned soon after her death that Dr. Gonzales Shushereba had only been married for a year and was seven-months pregnant — adding to the intense anguish those who loved her must now be feeling. The other woman who was killed was Christine Loeber — Pathway Home’s Executive Director. She is being remembered as “intelligent, delightful, outgoing and charming” by her colleagues.
It is also tragic and disheartening that we were unable to save the veteran who killed them. For reasons we may eventually understand, he had been asked to leave the Pathway program days before he returned to kill the three women — and end his own life. It may be that he was unable to benefit from what the program had to offer — or perhaps he had become aggressive or violent and was asked to leave because of safety concerns. It is also likely that — whether true or not — he may have felt that he had nowhere else to go and that there was no hope for him. Based on his final act of destruction, it seems that he was filled with rage or hatred or despair… or all of the above.
Some who read about the shootings will vilify Albert Wong and say that he was a monster or “one of those crazy vets with PTSD….” in order to try to make sense of what happened in Yountville. But this simplistic characterization fails to recognize the complexity of the issues the women who died had spent their careers trying to address.
Albert Wong had served our country and was honorably discharged in 2013. Only those closest to him — and perhaps some who worked with him during the course of his care — know what he suffered or how he was affected by the flashbacks, nightmares… or other debilitating symptoms that may have haunted him. But there is one thing that we can say with confidence — he wasn’t born a monster or a killer. The fact that he chose to serve our country suggests that he sought purpose and meaning — and for at least some period of time during his life, he deserved our respect and appreciation for his service. We must remind those who jump to conclusions about our veterans that the vast majority of those who serve come home to be assets in our communities. They engage in more public service and volunteerism than those who have not served. They vote more consistently and they serve more frequently in public service.
There are no easy solutions to the mental health challenges that affect those who are suffering. We don’t have all — or even most — of the answers for the pain that leads 20 veterans each day to take their own lives. Sadly, the stories of those twenty lives lost don’t typically make the headlines but they are tragic nonetheless.
And mental health challenges do not only affect those who have served our nation. The impact of trauma, depression, anxiety, mental illness and addiction affects millions of Americans — and families — every day in every community.
So what can we do — what must we do if we want to prevent tragedies like the one that occurred in Yountville? And what must we do if we want to ensure that all in need of mental health care are able to receive the treatment and support they deserve?
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough mental health professionals in our country — and it is unlikely that we will have enough to meet the needs in our military and veteran community — or the broader population — any time soon. In addition to encouraging students to go into this noble profession, we must continue to explore and implement innovative ideas to take the knowledge and expertise of those of us who have the skills, to deliver care and reach more of those who are hurting.
In addition, there is so much that we don’t know about the mental health challenges that affect one in five Americans. For example, it is extremely difficult to determine what treatment or approach — or combination of treatments — may work for a given individual. Further, because we don’t place a premium on mental health care in our country, funding for research lags far behind funding for research into conditions that affect us physically. I am not suggesting to reduce funding for physical conditions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease — but rather that we look for new sources of funding for mental health conditions to help close the gap. We are a wealthy country — we can find a way to fund research and programs that can save lives.
And finally, most of us continue to lack basic information — basic literacy — when it comes to mental health and emotional well-being — whether we are talking about our own or those we love. This may be the easiest of our challenges to tackle — and arguably the one that could have the greatest impact.
We can educate all Americans about the importance of recognizing the signs that someone is in emotional pain. We can educate everyone to recognize the importance of acknowledging emotional pain and mental health concerns. And we can all learn what to do when we see someone who is struggling — we all have something to give that can assist those in need.
We can also teach our children to care for their emotional well-being the way we teach them to care for their physical well-being. There were apparently signs during Albert Wong’s early years that he was struggling — but those who cared for him may not have recognized them for what they were, they may not have known what to do to help him, or they may not have had access to care. We can do a better job to change our culture so that we can reach more of those who are suffering earlier.
I am not suggesting that we could have saved the veteran who took the lives of three caring and compassionate women — an act that shattered the lives of their families. But I am certain that we can and must do more to focus on those who are continuing to suffer — so that future tragedies and unnecessary loses can be prevented.
Originally published at medium.com