As 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.