Following the shootings in Newtown and other recent mass shootings, the White House issued the following announcement: “The Administration is proposing steps to identify mental health issues early and help individuals get the treatment they need before these dangerous situations develop.”
But as a clinical psychologist, I have to ask whether earlier mental health treatment is what will actually make the difference in preventing more of these tragic shootings. Do we need to rethink mental health care altogether so that it includes all of us, not just mental health professionals?
There are a few things we know about these types of mass shootings. First, most mass shooters have been young males. In his classic book Lost Boys, psychologist James Garbarino concludes that “when boys kill, they are seeking justice—as they see it, through their eyes.” These boys see themselves as having been wronged, often by peers, by schools, by authorities, by society, and/or by life. They have been either bullied or ignored, and often come to feel like a burden to their parents; an unpleasant irritation to their teachers; and/or a pariah among their peers. They become hopeless that they can ever be a joy to someone. And they experience overwhelming emotional pain, a major fuel for violence.
Many of us—including and perhaps especially, people who aren’t mental health professionals—can connect with at least one kind of troubled young person. If we can identify with the pain they feel, of being different and feeling rejected, we may find them receptive to us and to ideas about navigating their world without violence.
In my work I’ve been able to connect with many angry young men, but I don’t know that I could have connected with Newtown school shooter Adam Lanza’s special terror, including his fear of any kind of human touch, as described in Frontline’s “Raising Adam Lanza.” However, I have known others who experienced the same terror and fear he did as a youngster and overcame it—and these people, mostly non-mental health professionals—could well have connected with him.
The most important antidote against violent actions by a troubled young person is a genuine caring, respectful connection with a nonviolent person. In a healing relationship of mutual affection and respect, the pain that fuels violence can become less overwhelming. In such a relationship, troubled young people can also acquire genuine hope that their pain isn’t permanent, discovering that others have experienced such pain and have come to live satisfying and joyful lives.
We professionals can help young people who are willing to form a relationship with us, but often those who are open to working with a psychotherapist are far less at risk to take violent actions than those who refuse to allow such a relationship. The last person whom many of them will be receptive to is a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist; for them, mental health professionals can mean even more stigma and shame. Moreover, mental health professionals have ethical and legal boundary restraints that can make it difficult for us to give many of these young people what they often need most—someone who wants to be around them not because it’s their job but purely because they get a kick out of them.
The most important antidote against violence by a troubled young person is a genuine caring, respectful connection with a nonviolent person.
The sad truth is that many school and other mass shooters had gotten professional treatment. In 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s school shootings resulted in 15 dead (including themselves) and 21 wounded. In 1998, following their arrest for theft and in exchange for expunging their criminal records, the two young men agreed to several conditions, including anger management and psychiatric treatment.
After Harris’s death, the coroner discovered that his bloodstream contained the antidepressant Luvox, and some speculated that his psychiatric medication—along with bullying and many other factors—could have contributed to the violence. Luvox manufacturer, Solvay, reported that in a ten-week trial four percent of youth being treated with Luvox experienced “manic reactions,” compared with no such reactions in a control group treated with a placebo. Antidepressants, other psychotropic drugs, and alcohol are, for some people, disinhibitors to violence, meaning that they make it easier for violent thoughts to become violent actions. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now has an “black box” warning—the agency’s most serious caution—about the increased risk of contemplating suicide in children, adolescents, and young adults taking antidepressants.
Recognizing the limitations of professional treatment can be sobering but can also serve as motivation for nonprofessionals to become part of the solution. Many people who don’t work professionally in mental health are, in fact, in a better position than professionals to connect with the pain of a young troubled person and to form a healing relationship that may well provide hope, stop a suicide attempt, or even prevent another school shooting tragedy.
Have you known a young person struggling with depression, anxiety, or violent behavior? Were you such a person? How did you get through it?
Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D,. is a practicing clinical psychologist who writes and speaks on how society, culture, politics, and psychology intersect. His latest book is Get Up, Stand Up. Earlier books include Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic and Commonsense Rebellion. TakePart.com
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