Dr. Bonnie Kessler

By Dr. Bonnie Kessler, Ph.D.

As student walkouts are occurring throughout the country and debate is raging across governmental halls, we can all agree that it is time to pause and reflect on the tragedy of school violence and the shooters who create it.

According to reports, the 19-year-old gunman who killed 17 people last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., had a troubled past. The question of mental illness typically arises soon after such a shooting – whether it’s in a school, at a mall, or down a public street. Was this person mentally ill? What could have been done to stop it? Did the mental health system fail? Could we have detected this on a gun screening? What defines “mentally ill”? We have all asked the same questions, desperately searching for a way to regain control and prevent future attacks.

We frequently hear that the shooters are “mentally ill.” But that’s a vague term that is undefined. It remains meaningless.

Here’s what we know. The overarching commonality of mass shooters is that they are enraged. Their troubled histories come in varied forms, including a history of bullying, a propensity toward physical violence, using threatening speech, and the torture of animals. They typically feel alienated from others in society and are withdrawn. They externalize their emotions and express anger. They might be the kids who are ostracized by their peers.

Studies show that the majority of people with diagnosed mental disorders do not engage in violent behaviors against others. However, there are elements that might increase the risk of violent behaviors, including a substance-use disorder, poverty, unemployment, impulsivity, and early exposure to violence within the family environment.

For example, the profile of a young person prone to violence might be someone who is on the fringes of society and overlooked. They more typically believe they have been wronged by others and harbor grievances. They might be seeking fame in the most notorious manner.

These are not the qualities flagged in a standard background check. Yet, they are the characteristics that are responsible for most of the violence we wish we had tried to prevent.

These characteristics seen in teenagers diagnosed with conduct disorder are sown when they’re still just children. As they age into adulthood, the behaviors become more lethal.

We have all noticed children who fit this description, yet we don’t always take the long road to reach out. Their behavior might first be detected by parents, pediatricians, or schools. As teens, they might be the kids who post offensive, violent messages on social media. We often wonder how we can reach these troubled children.

Kids on the fringes of society have most likely tolerated years of social isolation and rejection. They have likely been bullied and stigmatized. Questions prevail. Why are so many children experiencing intense rage? Why are they making such poor choices in life? If families do not have the interpersonal strategies or resources to create a firm foundation, perhaps a strong teacher-student relationship would help inspire those waylaid on the sidelines. Children may also benefit from strong mentoring relationships with people in their churches or local youth outreach groups.

Here’s what else we know. Inviting children to collaboratively solve their challenges has been found to significantly reduce or eliminate the problematic behaviors. Children need to be taught social skills and communication to improve their deficits. Children and teenagers clearly need to learn responsibility. But they also need to feel that even one person believes in them. We need to increase safety nets for kids.

This is a community responsibility. The bridging of communities is what allows us to notice when our neighbor is troubled or when a family member might need a hand. Our families joining with school districts that partner with health care systems that team with our spiritual leaders and youth outreach groups would provide more power in the resolution of this crisis. How about we team up and focus on prevention? There is not one answer to reaching the disenfranchised, but many.

Dr. Bonnie Kessler is a licensed psychologist who works in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at Greenville Health System. She earned her doctorate in psychology from Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Kessler has been practicing for more than 20 years.

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