Local psychologist addresses misconceptions about mental illness

By Christian Mysliwiec - Staff Writer
South Windsor - posted Fri., Jan. 18, 2013
Dr. Steven Bonanno, Psy.D., is the owner of Acclaim Behavioral Services, LLC, at 2400 Tamarack Ave., Suite 201, in South Windsor. Photo by Christian Mysliwiec.
Dr. Steven Bonanno, Psy.D., is the owner of Acclaim Behavioral Services, LLC, at 2400 Tamarack Ave., Suite 201, in South Windsor. Photo by Christian Mysliwiec.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the issue of mental illness has become a subject of national discussion. But with that discussion comes many misconceptions. Addressing some of those misconceptions is Dr. Steven Bonanno, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at Acclaim Behavioral Services, LLC, in South Windsor.

“We've made some significant strides in our understanding of the mental health population,” said Bonanno. “But there are many misconceptions still out there, and unfortunately, there's still a negative stigma associated with the mental health community.”

The social deficiencies of the Sandy Hook gunman, Adam Lanza, has reinforced a common association between mental illness and violence. “A lot of times you hear about some absolutely disturbing behaviors that take place, and instinctively – unfortunately – people just assume there had to have been some sort of mental health issue to drive that person to do that,” he said. “But there are a lot of other variables that cause people to behave in certain ways.” Factors such as financial or relationship problems also lead to negative behavior – and Bonanno believes that the automatic assumption that mental illness is always the cause is unfortunate.

Bonanno often works with children and adolescents who may have a diagnosable illness, or who just need help working through a temporary difficulty. He believes in treating any potential issues as soon as possible. It is important to pay attention to any signs of difficulties in the social, behavioral or emotional domain of a child, he said. Teachers are a valuable resource in assessing a child, as quite often they spend more time with children than parents are able to.

Parents, for their part, should be “more amenable” to seeking outside help, such as a family doctor or pediatrician, who may be able to help or refer the child to someone else who can. While it may seem intimidating to seek help for a possible mental concern, Bonanno urges parents to do so with the same intensity as they would a medical concern.

Bonanno also notes that simply meeting with a psychologist does not mean there is definitely something wrong. “A good proportion of the patients that I have do not have something diagnosable,” he said. “Sometimes it's something behavioral, or the child just has some sort of confusion or anxiety about something, and it's justified.”

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, there has been heightened debate about what influence violent movies and video games may have on those who commit violent crimes. While Bonanno says that many clinical psychologists would disagree with him, he personally believes there is an impact. “I do think that violent media and violent video games in a way desensitizes kids to violence and unsavory acts,” Bonanno said. “I think if you have a child or teen who does have some sort of behavioral or mental health issue, I think the risk increases.”

When parents watched news of the shooting unfold on Dec. 14, they had to decide how they would address the subject with their child. Explaining a tragedy that children can relate to is always difficult, and Bonanno offers some advice. “I think you can approach that subject by providing information as needed,” he said. “Parents, especially highly verbal parents, make the mistake all too often of giving too much information when kids just wanted to be comforted or given basic facts.”

It has been common for young children to feel nervous about going to school after learning about the tragedy. “I think it's okay to let kids know that schools are working on safety plans with local police,” Bonanno said. “It's okay to say they are looking at plans to avoid anything like that happening again.”

Like many in the community, Bonanno and his staff have offered to help anyone who was affected by the tragedy. “Our practice, Acclaim Behavioral Services, has volunteered to give free services for any family, first responder, or anyone who wishes it, to obtain services free of charge,” he said. The practice has already filled out the necessary paperwork with the Newtown Task Force and the Red Cross.

Bonanno is joined by Dr. Sarah Crawford, Psy.D., and Dr. Janis I. Briga, Ph.D., at Acclaim. They opened their doors in South Windsor on May 1, 2012. The practice will be taking on two new psychologists this year, as well.

“We see a wide variety of issues. We see children and adolescents, and we see some adults,” said Bonanno. They have done family and couples therapy, and they treat a variety of problems, from anxiety disorders, depression and behavioral problems to ADHD, grief and loss, personality disorders and psychiatric disorders.

“We love what we do. This is a giving profession. It requires you to be nurturing, non-judgmental, open, and do whatever it takes to collaborate in order to help a patient,” said Bonanno.

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