Violence prevention in the wake of Sandy Hook

violence preventionContrary to what many people believe, mass shooters and other killers aren’t born, they’re created.

Violence is preventable, though maybe not totally avoidable.  As shown by a growing body of scientific research, interventions that address the underlying causes of violent behavior and victimization are effective in preventing new instances of violence. There are programs and strategies that, if implemented correctly, reliably and significantly reduce youth crime.

Policy makers, practitioners and families that are committed to reducing violence must invest in potentially effective practices to the extent there are means of determining effectiveness. Making use of evidence-based interventions already at hand could potentially contribute to a reduction in violence and save billions of dollars by preventing or mitigating factors that would otherwise require expensive interventions after the fact.

To prevent violence and reduce its consequences it is necessary to understand the causes of violence. A major finding of national and international reports on violence is that no single factor explains why one individual, family, community or society is more or less likely to experience violence. Instead, it shows that violence is rooted in the interaction of factors ranging from the biological to the political. An ecological approach to prevention of violence targets the categories of risk factors for violence at four interacting levels: the individual, relational, community context and societal factors

Approaching violence as preventable is a basic tenet of the public health approach, which includes four strategies:

  • Statistically describing and monitoring the extent of the problem; to identify the groups and communities at risk.
  • Identifying and understanding the factors that place people at risk for violence – to assess which factors may also be amenable to intervention.
  • Developing and evaluating interventions to reduce these risks, and
  • Implementing and applying widely the measures that are found to work.

Clear windows of opportunity are available to reduce risk factors and prevent violence before it occurs.  Risk factors are well established, preventive interventions are available and the first symptoms typically appear in very young children. Interventions before a problem manifests itself offer the best opportunity to protect young people.  Such interventions can be integrated in routine environments like pediatric health clinics, early care and education programs, schools as well as with families/caregivers.

The CDC describes several evidence-based interventions in their community guide: Using Evidence for Public Health Decision Making: Violence Prevention Focused on Children and Youth.  Research demonstrates the value of:

  • Strengthening families by teaching effective parenting skills, improving communication, and helping families deal with disruptions (such as divorce) or adversities (such as parental mental illness or poverty) as well as targeting behaviors such as substance use or aggressive behavior.
  • Strengthening individuals (throughout the lifespan) by building resilience and skills and improving cognitive processes and behaviors.
  • Preventing specific disorders, such as anxiety or depression, by screening individuals at risk and offering preventive interventions.
  • Promoting mental health in schools by offering support to children encountering serious stresses—such as exposure to violence and other traumatic events.
  • Expanding evidence-based mental health programs that reduce symptoms and prevent further violence.

Importantly, many providers and agencies are responsible for the care, protection and support of young people: the child welfare, education, and juvenile justice systems, as well as medical and mental health care providers and community organizations.  Yet resources within these agencies are scattered, not coordinated, and often do not effectively support prevention programs or policies.

To prevent violence we need partnerships among families, schools and other programs and providers to create coordinated approaches that support healthy development.  These partnerships should support workforce training, long-term tracking and setting aside resources for evidence-based prevention programs.

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