Risk factors, guns and media: Questions after Sandy Hook shooting

Sandy HookAs the news spread on Dec. 14 about the violence in Newtown, Conn., and in the days that followed, we all had questions. Safe Start Center Director Elena Cohen answers some of the most common questions in the wake of this school shooting, and others.

1)      Are people with mental illness more violent than others?

Researchers have been working for decades to try to figure out whether there’s a link between mental illness and violence, and if so, which people are likely to act violently.  It is now accepted that people with severe mental illness (i.e. schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and some personality disorders) are more likely to commit violent acts than others.  But the risk is very small.  The vast majority of mentally ill people will not commit violent acts and it would be very difficult to predict exact who would become violent.  The risk, however, rises when individuals with mental illness abuse drugs and alcohol.

Psychologists have come up with risks and protective factors for violent behavior—analogous to risk factors for heart disease such as age, blood pressure, smoking and cholesterol—and are including them in the risk assessment. Some of the approaches to risk assessment consider the presence of a mental illness but only as a small contributor to the risk, outweighed by factors such as previous violent acts, alcohol use, impulsivity, gang membership, and family support.   The goal is to become aware of the relationship between circumstances, behaviors and risks factors for violence and to be able to intervene to stop the cycle.

2)      Can we predict which children will become violent?

It is almost impossible to diagnose accurately if children or teenagers may become violent because their brains are still developing and some “normal” behavior at these ages can be misinterpreted as pathological.  In addition, the social cost of branding a child may be too high.  However, a growing number of psychologists and psychiatrists believe that assessing children and addressing concerns early in order to benefit from evidence-based interventions/treatment – instead of waiting until they are in the juvenile justice system – can change their course.

3)      What is the effect of providing guns to the “good guys”

In the wake of the shooting in Connecticut, the National Rifle Association proposed that the best way to protect school children was to place a guard in every school.  However, international and national data have consistently demonstrated that places with more guns have more violent deaths (both homicides and suicides). David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, asserts that there is no evidence that having more guns reduces crime.

4)      What is the role of entertainment media?

Reports from the National Institute of Mental Health and numerous studies conducted by leading figures within public health organizations—including the American Pediatric and American Psychological Associations—point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior. They point to the fact that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children.  While violent entertainment may have little or no effect on well-adjusted children and youth, for children with emotional or social problems who are more predisposed to take violent action, it takes on significance.   This does not mean, obviously, that entertainment violence is the sole, or even necessarily the most important factor contributing to youth violence.

5)      What are the characteristics of “shooters?”

There is no single reason why school shootings occur or one type of student who becomes a shooter.  Research into the lives of school shooters reveals a lot about those who are at risk for engaging in violence against their peers.  Profiling, however, is not effective for identifying students who may pose a future risk for targeted violence.  Knowing that an individual shares characteristics, features, or traits with prior school shooters does not advance the appraisal of risk.  A fact-based approach may be more productive in preventing school shootings than a trait-based approach.  This means inquiries should be based on behaviors and communications instead of attending only to students’ personal characteristics.

According to Dr. Thomas MackIntyre from Hunter College, most youth at risk of violence exhibit several of the following warning signs which can be seen as “red flags”. 

  • Depression and/or obsession with death. Many engage in self-injurious behavior or threats of suicide.
  • A fascination with and access to guns.  Many about guns with frequency and display them to others.
  • Talking about violence and making plans.  Many school shooters talk about plans and sometimes publish their intentions.
  • Frequent threats.  The violent acts are rarely impulsive.  There is a progression of pain, planning and punishment.
  • Preoccupation with violent entertainment.  Violent video games and music are part of the lifestyle.  Shooters practice virtual killing and hear musicians glorify violence and legitimize violent impulses.
  • Family life is troubled.  This may include living with marital discord, lack of supervision, hostile child rearing practices (including sexual and or physical abuse). Shooters feel neglected/disregarded at home.
  • Many have had run-ins with the law, home discipline concerns, failing grades.

 

Wednesday we’ll describe a range of policies and practices for all children and youth as well as specific interventions for children with specific risk factors that promote well-being and build on family, school, and community resources that have proven effective at reducing and preventing violence.

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