What Do We Know about School Shootings? The Psychology and The Stigma

When my daughter recently got treatment in the ER after injuring her arm I knew my insurance would cover the treatment regardless of whether she had a minor sprain or a full-blown break. I didn't have to sweat it. I didn't have to wonder how to help or if anyone out there knew how to help. I didn't have to worry about her future. I didn't have to worry about the next fall or next injury. I didn't have to worry about if or how the school could accomodate her. I didn't have to go home and worry about whether or what to tell my other kids, the school or the neighbors. In fact people seemed downright eager to talk about it. She was like a rock star back at school, entertaining the lunch table with details of her backwards trip over the downed tree, all conveniently caught on her Flip camera. The grandparents even sent a get well card.

What if she had instead of a fall a series of panic attacks or depression? Her experience would have been much different for a variety of reasons.

There's an enormous stigma attached to mental illness or even rather minor emotional or psychological problems. I wrote about it last March in the aftermath of the school attack in Chardon, Ohio near my hometown.  I wonder when or if we'll start a serious conversation on mental health and more important follow up with a national action plan akin to anti-bullying programs in place for awareness, prevention and intervention in cases of serious child psychiatric issues.  After re-reading my post back in March I'm still struck by some of the findings of a recent report about school shootings spanning several decades conducted by the US Secret Service in conjunction with the US Department of Education:
Attackers ranged in age and ethnicity though all were male but a female committed one during the report preparation.

Most came from two- parent (63%) or one-parent households (20%). Only 2% lived with a foster parent or legal guardian.

Most did well in school with 41% getting As and Bs. Some had taken AP courses and were on the honor roll. Only 5% were failing. None showed any pre-attack slip in grades.

Almost half were considered to be part of the mainstream crowd at school. Only 27% belonged to a fringe group or hung with students considered fringe by the mainstream. Only 34% were loners.

Almost two-thirds never or rarely got into trouble at school. Few had either been suspended (27%) or expelled (10%).

Most (71%) felt they’d been bullied, persecuted, or harmed by other people right before the attack. Some had been bullied from early childhood, some not at all.

Most had expressed or felt suicidal (78%) and depression (61%) though only a third had ever received a mental health evaluation and a fifth diagnosed with a disorder.
Almost a quarter had a known history of drug or alcohol abuse. 
Most had trouble coping with significant loss or failures in their young lives before the attack (98%). These included failed romantic relationships, failing grades, family deaths and family illnesses.  
Most were into violent media - movies, video games, books, etc. (59%). More than a third wrote violent poems, essays or stories.

Most had no history of violence or criminal behavior. Only a third had acted violent towards another student in the past and a quarter had been arrested.

Most (93%) didn’t “snap” or carry out attacks on an impulse or whim but planned the attacks, some for years in advance. Typically other people knew about the plan, sometimes even helped plan or prepare. In almost all the cases (93%) the young man did something that deeply concerned someone prior to the attack (93%). In almost three-quarters at least 3 people were very worried.   School Shootings, No Usual Suspects? Momma Data, March 2012.
It's so easy to conclude there's no way to identify a kid who will become homocidal given these statistics but I keep coming back to the suicidal thoughts (78%), depression (61%) and deep loss/failure (98%).  I'm also struck that other people were very concerned about potential violence, most often several people including adults. People knew and yet they didn't appear to have either the resources or training to stop it. Suppose those teens or young adults had the flu or another medical illness, most of us could spot it or at least know exactly how to treat it or get help if needed. If it were a more serious illness we would probably rather readily and easily seek out the right health professional. We wouldn't hesitate to get help. The course of treatment would be pretty clear too. Not so here. I know we can do better.


Awesome Mom said...

It is sad that there is such a stigma. I have a good friend that is struggling with depression (thankfully she lives in Canada and gets a lot of help) and yet when my husband was placed on anti depressants several months ago I in denial thinking not my husband. I didn't think he was that bad but the medication has made things a lot more pleasant at home. I am just glad things did not have to spiral out of control before he got help for himself and that his medications are working.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Awesome, glad to hear it's worked out well. Can you imagine if it hadn't? It's easy for us to not see too, right? Especially if it's gradual so all the more important for other people to be aware of symptoms and signs.

Julie Adams said...

Yet another smart perspective from Momma Data.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Julie, good to hear from you in the blogosphere. Flu passing through NJ, don't you miss it? Gonna post a new version at Psych Today just as soon as I can stop doling out crackers and ginger ale.