In a new Sandy Hook PSA, comedians deliver a powerful message about why threats of violence are no laughing matter. In this Parents article, Mindpath Health’s Julian Lagoy, MD, discusses how and why it’s important to talk to children about comments about gun violence.
Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit organization established to work towards gun violence prevention programs and policies, has released a new and powerful public service announcement (PSA). Co-founder Nicole Hockley says it’s a “call to action for kids and a wake-up call for parents.”
The spot features notable stand-up comedians like Billy Eichner, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, and Caitlin Reilly in their element—on stage and performing for real audiences. Except their jokes are anything but funny. The punch lines are actual lines used by school shooters, though that’s not revealed until the second half of the PSA.
The goal? To highlight one of the reasons parents and students often miss warning signs of gun violence: People think the person is just kidding or looking for attention.
“These are not jokes,” says Hockley, who co-founded Sandy Hook Promise in 2013, the year after her son, Dylan, was murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. “These are serious. You need to take threats of violence seriously. That’s the message we want people to take. If you hear a threat or see a warning sign, you need to take it seriously. It doesn’t always mean they are joking. If you assume that, a tragedy will follow.”
Hockley says the comics known for making people laugh were all-in for helping with the new PSA with references to preventable tragedies. “It’s harrowing to be giving a statement, saying something that an actual school shooter said or posted,” Hockley says. “The seriousness was not lost on them.”
The effectiveness of the new Sandy Hook Promise PSA
PSAs with a high level of shock value aren’t new for Sandy Hook Promise. A few years ago, a spot on back-to-school essentials like sneakers, scissors, and skateboards being used to protect students during school shootings raised flags with parents. However, the students participating in active shooter drills and grappling with the fear of being shot at school gave her different feedback.
The new ad is a departure from previous focuses, instead focusing on why people miss warning signs rather than raising awareness for those flags. The result?
“This one is harrowing because they are real words,” Hockley says. “There is no acting. It’s real threats being used. This will bring kids’ fears to light in a different way.”
“We live in a world where we continue to be in a mental health crisis, where we worry about sending our kids safely to school each day, where we have to talk to our kids about topics that we wish they didn’t need to encounter, or even may not have the emotional or cognitive capacity to understand fully,” says Erica Miller, PhD, a children’s therapist.
But, speaking of emotional and cognitive capacity, the PSA is aimed at adults and students. Hockley says the feedback she receives from youth is often heavy on gratitude, but do experts think the content is too heavy?
Dr. Lagoy emphasizes that parents know what their kids can handle better than anyone. Generally, he says the ad may scare small children but be impactful for a middle or high school student, particularly the latter. In fact, despite the sobering message, Dr. Lagoy says the ad could actually empower youth to help classmates in crisis.
“Children, in general, need to understand the importance of mental health,” Dr. Lagoy says. “Often, students may have tried to speak up to receive help but go unnoticed. Teaching children the warning signs and symptoms will help them prioritize their mental well-being and be better equipped to speak up if they see another student or peer needing help.”
Another expert agrees: The critical message is clear as day.
“There are real consequences to these statements, and the impact that they have can be life-threatening,” says Andrea Marano, LCSW of Choosing Therapy. “Kids need to live in a world where these threats are taken seriously every single time, whether they are serious or not, in order to prevent such tragedies from occurring.”
The PSA is just the start
The new PSA highlights the importance of reporting threats of gun violence. But how can parents guide children on what to do?
Parents can set an example by not avoiding the topic of gun violence with their children rather than avoiding it.
“The worst thing we can do is never discuss this with our child,” Dr. Lagoy says. “We need to talk to our children about this, and we need to teach them how to look out for people saying things like this and to tell us or a teacher about it immediately.”
But this recommendation can feel daunting to a child—especially when you consider they shouldn’t have to be on the lookout for signs their classmate may be contemplating a shooting. However, talking about going to a trusted adult normalizes it rather than stigmatizing the action as “snitching.”
“We often ask kids to tell a teacher, go to the counselor, and sometimes that is very public and anxiety-provoking,” Dr. Miller says. “We want to do everything we can to open lines of communication and decrease the pressure and anxiety our kids feel in these scenarios.”
Marano agrees, adding that reassurance can help a child feel less afraid to raise a flag, even if it means a classmate may face questions from school and law enforcement officials.
“Reassure your children that they will not be in trouble or receive any backlash if they come forward about these things,” Marano says. “Remind them how important it is to speak up and share with an adult when someone makes a statement about violence. There is no statement that is no big deal. Everything must be looked into.”