Like most other people in the state of Maine, I was glued to the news in the days following the mass shootings on Oct. 25, trying to manage the waves of grief, shock, fear and heartbreak that came in their wake.

How do I explain to my 3-year-old why her Halloween party at daycare was canceled? How do I explain why we couldn’t go outside for two days while the shooter was on the loose? How do I keep my children safe, oblivious and occupied while being honest about my emotions and staying present and engaged? These are impossible questions to answer and ones that many Mainers grappled with as the tragic news unfolded. I have become familiar with the far-too-common waves of emotions that come in the aftermath of a mass shooting in this country: confusion as to how this could happen, anger at the perpetrator, outrage at the systems that could allow this to happen.

There is a false narrative that takes hold, though, which is to assume that the killer acted alone.

He may have fired the gun by himself but by no means did he act alone. Every one of us is a product of our environment – the ZIP code that we grew up in, the schools that we went to, the culture and values we are surrounded by, and the laws, policies and services that give structure to our lives.

Like all of us, the gunman was a product a culture and environment that allows mental health issues to go unchecked; that allows people to buy weapons of war legally despite many warning signs of mental health issues and violent thoughts; and that allows watered-down yellow flag laws to be passed but not enforced, rendering them useless. Maine has some of the weakest gun laws in New England, with no requirements for background checks or concealed carry permits, no restrictions for convicted domestic abusers, no training requirement, and no restrictions on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.

We have somehow decided, as a culture, that it is acceptable to have one school social worker in Maine for every 617 students when the recommended ratio is 1 to 250 and one school psychologist for every 1,830 students with a recommended ratio of 1 to 500.

Maine kids in crisis often languish in jails or emergency rooms for months waiting on a placement at a psychiatric facility due to chronic underinvestment in behavioral health services. Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have mental health conditions and are 10 times more likely to suffer from psychosis than those not in detention. As of November 2021, more than 2,300 people were waiting for openings in outpatient mental health treatment but more than 260 residential treatment beds for children are empty due to lack of staffing. This chronic underfunding has resulted in more than 20 residential mental health programs closing in the last year due to a lack of funding and staffing.

The state of Maine has only 85 mental health crisis workers. It has more than 2,500 law enforcement officers. The result of these funding priorities means that law enforcement and correctional officers are forced to respond to mental health crises that they are not trained to address. I have seen the effects of this crisis first hand as a former teacher at Long Creek Youth Development Center and as a current public school teacher. Our kids are not getting the resources they need and deserve to thrive.

We are all the product of our families, communities and culture, as well as the values that our civic and cultural institutions promote. Laws, policies and funding are all reflections of those values. It is the job of every citizen and community member, but especially lawmakers, to advocate for the values that we truly believe in and pass laws and funding bills that reflect those values. I hope that this tragic event is finally a wake-up call to reexamine our values as Mainers and act accordingly.

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