SOUTH PORTLAND — As the debate rages on over the root causes of the latest mass school shooting and what can be done to stop such tragic events from happening again, I can’t help but think of the larger societal questions that come along with our increasingly fast-paced and wired existence. Much of what you hear debated centers on the accessibility of guns, our fractured mental health system and the perceived need to “harden” the soft targets that our schools represent to would-be shooters.

Less frequent are the discussions about the emotional health of our young people and our ability as a community to nurture and support them. The troubling signs we see go well beyond the nationally publicized shootings – they involve cyber bullying, criminal threatening, substance use, dating violence, motor vehicle fatalities and teen suicide. In my mind, these are symptoms of a growing trend in our society of disconnectedness, of an underlying deterioration in what it means to be a community or even a family.

While it is easy to think of technology and social media as helpful or even necessary communication tools that make us all better connected, in reality they seem to have quite the opposite effect. The more our children and teenagers are connected to their devices, the more disconnected they seem from their family and the world around them.

There is an isolating effect that seems to accompany their overuse and one can certainly perceive an element of loneliness, despite the number of “friends” or “likes” one can accumulate. Parents and caregivers are equally susceptible to the effects of social and mass media and the devices they are delivered on. We communicate through sound bites, use self-help apps, document our lives in social media timelines and run our lives from to-do lists and appointment reminders. What is lost in this equation is time – time to spend building relationships, time to understand and listen to our kids and time to teach our young people how to recognize and deal with the daily struggles of life. This disconnectedness allows emotional struggles to fester into personal crises for our kids. Underlying depression and anxiety, often exacerbated by alcohol and drug use, leave our kids feeling hopeless and angry, with the possibility that they will lash out and be heard in their own way.

So as the debate continues regarding the visible and obvious, we cannot forget about the most basic of questions: How do we better connect families, schools and communities to our young people in a way that enables them to get the help and guidance they need to feel emotionally healthy and cared about by the people around them? One way is for us all to get better at actively listening.

This isn’t easy, as we have also tuned out or built our own defensive walls. This is a skill that needs to be developed and exercised, just like the many other self- improvement goals we take on.

Another way is to create opportunities for our schools and communities to take up the cause for creating connectedness. Programs such as the Boys & Girls Clubs and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America provide opportunities for youth to build self-esteem and nurture healthy relationships.

The agency that I represent, Day One, has its own initiative, the Natural Helpers of Maine, geared toward training selected students to become peer helpers within their schools – able to recognize fellow students in need and with the knowledge to connect them to established support systems and professionals within the school environment as quickly as possible. Becoming a Natural Helper not only provides an on-the-ground support system for the school, but also allows the student to grow as a leader and model the skills we want to instill in our young people and adults alike.

There may very well be additional financial resources put into the system, given the tremendous efforts of the Parkland students and the public outrage clearly seen throughout the country. I hope these resources can help bring about common-sense gun laws and improved mental health services, and I truly hope that some of that money can go toward giving our youth and the caregivers around them the skills and supports necessary to enter adulthood as emotionally healthy individuals who are also mindful of others around them.