Likely, you are participating in the current national soul-searching after the latest tragic school shooting/mass murder. In our angst we ask, “Why God?” and “What can we do to try to stop this kind of senseless killing?”
It is the second question that is on my mind right now.
Political debates will abound about gun control measures or the right to bear arms. In my humble opinion it is time to move beyond that debate and address the treatment of those who are most at risk to engage in mass killings. I have no idea about the mental status of this most recent killer but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to figure out how to better care for such individuals.
Who is at risk? A complex matter
Violence risk assessments have morphed over the years from clinical judgment (turns out our intuition wasn’t very accurate!) to an actuarial approach looking at factors like: active psychotic symptoms, family problems, history of aggression/domestic violence and or criminal behavior, social withdrawal/skills deficits, and substance abuse. But of course, there are many who have positive indicators on several of these factors who are in no danger of becoming a mass murderer. Still others meet none of these risk factors and yet become killers. [Read Randy Otto's short paper on violence risk assessment and discussion of the historical, clinical, and environmental factors of violence risk]
One possible (partial) solution
Right now mental health professionals and educators are required to report possible child abuse. In addition, we counselors have duties to warn and protect when our clients indicate they are an imminent (meaning, immediate) danger to self or other. Sadly, many adults in high risk categories are not likely to be in treatment (due to costs, treatment availability and refusal) and may have enough sense not to make threats to those who are obligated to report.
So, what might we do to help those who do come in contact with at-risk individuals? In some states, all civilians are required to report potential child abuse. What if we develop a reporting mechanism for civilians to report those who are making statements about violent acts?
To make this procedure work, there are some additional changes we would have to enact (some of which are not simple)
- We would have to engage in a large public awareness campaign and to train law enforcement and even mental health professional to recognize risk factors
- We would need to develop humane but required treatment protocols
- We would need to stop cutting public funds for mental health (and increase quality of community mental health care providers), and
- We would need to consider limiting some of the currents rights to decline treatment when a number of the risk factors are present (this is, of course, no small matter. In this country we have the right to be insane…as long as we don’t hurt others).
Some need a rescue
Soon after the Connecticut shooting, The Huffington Post ran an op ed blog post by a mother of a mentally ill young man. It went viral as it was “a gorgeously written piece” by a mother whose son’s behavior terrified her. She well described the isolation and inability to find proper treatment and care for a son she loved but could not control. Almost as soon as her piece went public, others outed the writer as a person with mental illness who publicly blogged about wishing to strangle her children (see above link for that story). Despite her lack of judgment in prior writings, the original piece reminds us that there are many families suffering without avenues to help the ones they love. If we are going to make progress in quelling mass violence, we had better start building better mechanisms to treat the mentally ill and to support their family members.