PITTSFIELD -- Jeremy Richman and his wife were "destroyed" when their 6-year-old daughter Avielle was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.
She was one of 20 first-graders, along with six adults, who were victims of one of the worst mass shootings in American history.
In the wake of that incident, Richman, a neuroscientist, decided to take up the study of the brain as it relates to violence. He and his wife set up the Avielle Foundation, which raises money to fund brain health research and build communities in order to help prevent other tragedies like Newtown.
Richman spoke about his experiences and efforts in front of about 40 local law enforcement officials and Berkshire Community College staff on Friday. His appearance was part of a weeklong series of training and presentations funded by the National Alliance of Mental Illness to help officers better deal with the mentally ill.
One of Richman’s goals is to identify the causes of violence, its triggers and what can be done to stop people from turning to violence.
The Sandy Hook killings were "an atrocity," he said. "My wife and I were destroyed and still are but how does our country respond to this?"
Richman laid out a host of risk factors that can lead to violent behavior, including family problems, substance abuse, physical abuse, sexual promiscuity, environmental stress -- such as one’s neighborhood -- toxins, poor nutrition, lack of exercise and violence in the media.
Genetics can also play a role, he said. An abused child has a two-fold risk of being arrested for a violent crime later in life.
"We underappreciate the damage of deprivation and neglect, a very severe form of violence," he said. "Bullying can be just as serious as growing up in war-torn Syria."
An empathetic and nurturing upbringing, good nutrition and educational media can help prevent violence, he said.
Richman said he became a neuroscientist after watching the toll that Alzheimer’s disease took on his grandfather. "It’s a very frustrating, very debilitating disease."
The brain, he said is "just another organ" like the heart, but it is the "least explained" of all the organs. "It’s very complex," he said. Much more research is needed. "We’re where we were on cancer 50 to 60 years ago."
According to a copy of the FBI’s national violent crime report, there was a decline in violent crime between 2008 to 2011, from approximately 1.4 million to 1.2 million reported violent acts.
One police officer asked Richman how the United States compared to other countries in terms of violence. Richman said the rate of violence in U.S. doesn’t differ much from other places like Great Britain, except that there are many more gun deaths here.
As an example of what he views as misplaced priorities, Richman noted that a mental health facility about a mile away from Sandy Hook was closed down in 1995. Down the road, a maximum security prison opened in 1992. Most of the mental health patients ended up in that prison, he said.
Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless said his office is "engaged and committted to doing not just law enforcement and prosecution" but to also take part in other programs "so that people don’t get involved in the criminal justice system."
Berkshire County Sheriff Lt. Colonel Tom Grady helped coordinate the program and the participation from local police agencies. Other speakers included psychologists, staff from The Brien Center, law enforcement officials and one state trooper who responded to the Newtown massacre.
The aim is to "enhance awareness of people with mental illness" and "to divert people out of arresting and into support and treatment," Grady said.
For Grady, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for 34 years, the program’s goal includes teaching "de-escalation skills" to officers and showing them how to recognize people with a mental illness or substance abuse problem.
Part of that effort includes bringing people to the hospital, contacting a veteran’s group, mental facility or The Brien Center to get help for somebody who needs it instead of arresting them, Grady said. "It’s extremely important," he said. "A lot of people with mental illnesses end up in prisons, but they are not where they need to be."
Jason Turner, a 10-year veteran with the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office, said the training sessions emphasized "tolerance" and "understanding" for the people he may deal with. Mental illness, he said, is not like a broken bone: "It’s an invisible illness."
Richman goes on speaking tours a couple times a month, he said, visiting schools and communities. He testified in front of Congress on the topic of violence research. When people come up to him, they say they can’t imagine what he has gone through. "You really can imagine," he said.
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