School Shootings Part Two – A Warning About Mishandling The Mental Health Component

photo of an informational display from the post war era, created by the Minnesota Mental Hygiene Society, touting the benefits to individuals and society of mental health treatment and counseling.

by Richard Cameron


 

In the first of this series on the mental health factors of school shooters, we examined the general outlines of the three main categories or psychological profiles of the (mostly) young men who commit these attacks.  In this follow up report, we’ll set forth the hazards of getting the public into a mindset of amateur diagnoses that could conceivably derail any successful program devised to assist those vulnerable individuals in need of professional counseling and treatment. image of student experiencing depression. Image furnished by Family Guidance Center. http://fgcnow.org/tag/students-with-depression/

Before we do, however, I would just like to forward this with a cautionary note.  Developing effective and comprehensive stratagems for prevention and intervention involves considerably more elements than merely trying to identify and react to red flags and behavioral signals.  An example is retooling the entire structure of campus security – both from the standpoint of the physical environment, but also where appropriate, maintaining a presence of trained law enforcement as means of responding to an active shooter situation assisted by technology – cameras and monitors.

Teachers need training in recognizing social dynamics among the students that could escalate into a rage fueled event. Parents or guardians need to become sensitive to signs of stress, anger and depression. And then there are improvements needed in the quality of information that feeds into the national background database for firearm purchases. That aspect will be discussed in greater detail as we move forward in this series.

The second advisory is that while situational awareness has value, a tense campus environment of anxiety and constant apprehension is not helpful. And that has bearing on the benefits versus the deficits of the various proposals regarding, among other things – putting more armed officers on school campuses as well as the notion of arming teachers. We’ll devote an entire report on that and attempt to clear up a myriad of misconceptions.

But for now, some perspective on the overall topic is in order. Dr. Eric Madfis, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Washington – Tacoma, reminds us that campus shootings are exceedingly rare even though they are sensationalized by the media and politicized.  In reality, school shooting incidents comprise just 1% of homicides that occur among school-age youths.

Madfis also notes that the statistical probabilities of a campus shooting happening at your neighborhood high school are one such event in a span of 6,000 years – or to put in another frame of reference, Haley’s Comet will have made 80 appearances during that interval.

Because mass shootings are sensationalized by the media and consequently capture the public imagination and attention more than other categories of violence and gun related violence, there tends to be a lack of proportion to our perception and thinking regarding them.

Underlining this is the reality that even when the death toll in the aggregate, from other causes, including other categories of violence is considerably higher – the school shooting is undeniably charged with a higher emotional content vis a vis public perception, because of the setting and the victims involved.  By comparison though, out of the 33,000 deaths involving a gun in America, the 21 percent of them that are accountable to shooters in the 15 to 34 year old age group, occur in settings other than a school campus.

Finally, a careful distinction with regard to the public perception of mental illness needs to be established.  If we are broadly speaking of gun violence, mental illness is only a factor in 4 percent of that violence.  With reference to school shootings, the number is a slim fraction of gun violence overall. 

In contrast, the point here is that by putting all troubled young people under the broad microscope of suspicion, we run the risk of stigmatizing the mentally ill and isolating them – instead of providing them the professional care they so desperately need. Everyone wins when an intervention is effectively triaged. 

Ron Honberg, a senior policy advisor at the National Alliance on Mental Illness points out the unintended consequences of the false equivalences that persist. “Do we not risk creating further barriers? People [may] feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, if I get identified as having a psychiatric diagnosis, people are going to draw certain conclusions.’ It’s hard enough to get people to seek help when they need it.”

The strong tendency to brand children and adults with psychological challenges as shooting events looking for a place to happen – is both unfortunate and fraught with risks.  “We have a strong responsibility as researchers who study mental illness to try to debunk that myth,” says Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University. “I say as loudly and as strongly and as frequently as I can, that mental illness is not a very big part of the problem of gun violence in the United States.”

What Mr. Swanson is referring to, is the fact that thousands more young men die as a consequence of either being involved with gangs and street crime – or being caught in the crossfire of gang violence.

artwork by Justin Renteria depicting a young neighborhood child targeted by gang member with gun pointed at him and a bullseye target on his shirt

When it comes to adolescents, teens and young men and women who suffer various mental health issues – the vast majority will never commit a mass shooting or school shooting. 

In fact, 60 percent of the potential gun violence will manifest itself in suicides – which is also a problem of disturbing magnitude for military veterans suffering with PTSD.

In the previous report in this series, I alluded to a couple of reference publications that school counselors and mental health professionals are consulting in order to gain insight into the complex states of mind of those most prone to commit school shootings.  In the next installment, we’ll break down the particulars that they have identified as components of those predictive elements.

But at the same time, we’ll highlight the warnings against racing towards hard conclusions before gathering together a firm and accurate understanding of  the individual circumstances of each young person at risk. We’ll also examine the value of “Red Flag” laws that are now on the books in 5 states.

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