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.

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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.

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Sandy Hook Elementary shooting: A month later

Sandy HookThe tragic acts of violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School have shaken the entire nation.  It pushed all of us to come together to share our repulsion and grief. It led us to talk about how to move forward in light of this tragic event, how to prevent violence before it happens, and how to create peaceful communities with thriving youth.

Inclinations to intensify security in schools are being reconsidered.  Parents and teachers, however, have warned us that we should not turn our schools into fortresses.  Other emphases have focused on asking whether the shooter could have been identified ahead of time, the presence of mental illness and identifying the characteristics of mass shooters that can shed a light on his motivation for the heinous act.  These concerns highlight the need for more mental health support resources and threat assessment teams in every school.  The goal is for people to seek assistance when they recognize that someone is troubled and requires help. Effective prevention cannot wait until there is a gunman in the school parking lot.

This time the tragedy took place in a school. But plenty of shootings occur in communities throughout the United States every day.  Few of them occur in schools and though they are especially tragic, children are safer in schools than in almost any other place, including for many, their own homes.  Data from the National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence shows that children’s exposure to violence is pervasive in the United States and that it has an accumulated effect. If a child is exposed to one type of violence he/she is more likely to be experience other types of victimization. The economic costs of violence are high, but the social costs, even though less quantifiable, are even higher.  Evidence suggests that children and youth exposed to violence in their home and communities are at greater risk of developing physical, mental and socially negative outcomes.

Violence is preventable and there is a strong and growing evidence base to support that fact.  However, because prevention occurs well before the violence would occur — and if it is successful, violence doesn’t occur at all— activities may not be recognized as violence prevention at all.

The nation’s approach to violence has largely been to wait to act until a violent event occurs that causes considerable harm.  All too often, opportunities are missed to use evidence-based approaches to prevent the occurrence, establish building blocks for healthy development in all young people and limit the family, environment and community violence that increase risks.

Check back with us tomorrow as we address some of the questions many have had in the wake of this tragic shooting.

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