Are you worried about all the violence in the news today? Are your children safe at school?
By Dr. Kathryn Seifert
Jared Lee Loughner brutally attacked Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at a support rally in Arizona. In that attack, he savagely killed 6 and wounded 14 men, women and children. Prior to this attack and because of significant concerns of staff, he was asked to leave his college and obtain a mental health evaluation before returning to school. It appears that he was not sent for an emergency, involuntary evaluation for mental illness and dangerousness. Being asked to leave school was a major life stressor that likely impacted his self-esteem and increased his risk to commit a violent act. After the slaughter and his arrest, he hospitalized and found incompetent to stand trial. He was, then, involuntarily medicated. When deemed competent due to the administration of psychotropic medication, he pled guilty to the charges against him. Had he been involuntarily hospitalized, evaluated and medicated before the shooting, in all likelihood, there would have been no shooting.
The pendulum has swung from keeping people in hospitals for the mentally ill too long to making it almost impossible to have someone committed to a hospital to determine if he or she is going to harm himself or other people. While most mentally ill people are not dangerous, some are. Sometimes mentally ill people that cope poorly with life stressors, and are paranoid, out of touch with reality, abusing substances, and experiencing significant life stress, stop taking their medications and become dangerous and hurt other people. That has to be fixed by finding a way to evaluate and provide them with medication, while still protecting individual rights. A balance must be found.
What do we know about violence that will help us find solutions?
- The US has the highest rate of violence among all of the industrialized nations.
- Violence is an answer when people are not skilled in solving their problems by talking to other people to find solutions.
- Many children that grow up in violent homes and do not have someone to help them cope with trauma, have poorer coping skills and are at a higher risk for committing violent acts as they grow older.
- One in 5 people that visit a primary care physician are in need of mental health or substance abuse services.
- One in 5 children and teens in school need mental health or substance abuse services
- Mentally ill people that are paranoid, abusing alcohol or drugs, have poor coping skills, violent communications, major life stressors, and are not in treatment for their illnesses are at higher risk to commit violent acts.
What can we do about it?
- Educate the public about, “It is OK to ask for help,” See something, say something,” and Mental health first aid.
- Make mental health, skill building, and substance abuse treatment and interventions readily available in schools, colleges, courts, and physician’s offices
- Court order assessment and therapy for all family members in any home where there are children and there is domestic violence.
- Finance, encourage and support treatment services for anyone that appears to have major difficulties coping with the problems of everyday life and has mental health or substance abuse problems.
- Provide services in the least stigmatizing way possible.
- Create effective threat assessment teams in every school, college, and public agency.
- Make the use of valid risk assessment tools more widespread.
What we do now to prevent violence is ineffective and far too expensive. We must change the way we do business when it comes to violence prevention. The research is very clear that addressing these issues before there is a terrible outcome is best for all.
Youth violence is a huge problem in the US and around the world.
How do severely violent youth, who injure and murder people, differ from kids who do not attempt to harm others? It is important to know how these children and teens are different so that we can identify and provide treatment for them. Two decades of research including a new study has verified the traits of these youth.
Several studies over the last 2 decades of youth that kill others have indicated that there was abuse, domestic violence, or parental substance abuse or mental illness in the majority of the child or teen’s household before the murder occurred. In a recent study, 84% of youth that had injured or killed another person, 54% of non-assaultive youth with behavior problems, and 37% of youth with no behavior problems had family histories of violence or criminality. Of the group with family histories of violence, but no behavior problems, the majority did not have learning, substance abuse, anger management, or school behavior problems. Most did not have deviant peers, although all were delinquent and most had experienced some kind of trauma and had psychiatric problems. It appears that some children with strong resiliency factors who are able to excel in some areas are also able to overcome very damaging risk factors.
Young murderers tend to struggle academically. Myers et al. (1995) reported that nearly 3/4 of adolescent murderers had failed a grade and had learning disabilities. Nearly 2/3 of youth that injured or killed a victim, in the Seifert study, had learning problems. By contrast, only 1/4 of youth without behavior problems had learning problems.
Frequent diagnoses used for youth that commit murder include ADHD, Mood Disorders, Antisocial Traits, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, and Conduct Disorder. Also reported are brief psychotic episodes that remit after the murder occurs. In the Seifert study approximately 1/2 of severely assaultive youth had substance abuse problems and/or showed signs of psychosis. However, only 15% of non-assaultive youth had substance abuse problems and 23% had symptoms of psychosis. Additionally, as in the McArthur study of adults released from psychiatric hospitals, 75% of those that had psychiatric symptoms and were substance abusers, were assaultive.
Many studies over the years have reported that the majority of young murderers have had prior arrests, assaults, and gang participation. Seventy-nine percent of the Seifert sample of severely assaultive youth were delinquent, while slightly more than 20% of non-assaultive youth were delinquent. Therefore, we conclude that past delinquency, assaults and disruptive behaviors distinguish severely assaultive from non-violent young people. Ninety-nine percent of youth that had killed or injured a victim and 67% of non-assaultive youth had anger management problems.
The majority of perpetrators of youth violence have had exposure to violence in the home, learning problems, mental illness and substance abuse, and prior delinquencies and assaults. Youth being processed by the juvenile justice system that have these traits should be targeted for intensive services, regardless of the charges for which they are arrested. Such a program would attempt to increase skills and reduce substance abuse, symptoms of mental illness, and criminogenic factors among high risk youth. Such a program has a great opportunity to be preventive of future violence. The more severe the youth’s problems are, the more intensive the services should be. Families must be included in these programs. Home visiting programs that assist families to eliminate domestic violence and improve parenting skills also prevents future violence by the children in those homes.
Our juvenile justice system is still bases sanctions on the charges for which a youngster is arrested and few if any children are arrested below the age of 12. However, what the research tells us is that 1) The offense for which a juvenile is arrested is generally only a fraction of illegal activities in which the youth is actually involved; 2) The juvenile offenders who are less than 13 years of age will most likely become the chronically and severely violent youthful offenders as teens; 3) Modeling of violence often begins in a home where the parents or neighborhood are violent or criminal. Therefore, many of our State and County juvenile justice systems need major transformation. Everyone must call for change until the systems reflect the research of the last 20 years.
A New Study Compares Victims of Trauma to Perpetrators of Youth Violence
A new strudy compared victims, perpetrators, and victim/perpetrators of violence. Youth Perpetrators of violence had experienced more severe and chronic trauma than youth who were just victims. Significantly more victims with no history of perpetration had greater social support and life coping skills than perpetrators. Perpetrators of violence had weaker connections to schools than victims that were not perpetrators. This study implies that giving support and services to victims of domestic and youth violence, as well as child abuse and neglect may prevent victims from becoming perpetrators of violence.
Ohio School Shooter Had history of Family Violence
According to CNN tonight, TJ Lane, the suspected school shooter at Chardon High School in Ohio, had been exposed to the domestic violence between his parents. When parents set this as the model for solving problems, why are we surprised when the child in the home uses violence to solve his problems? TJ, reportedly had been accused of assault in the past, as well. He was allegedly in an alternative school for those with behavior problems. His father had served time in jail for assault. These 4 things together are huge red flags. However, future violence did not have to be inevitable in this or any other violence ridden family. Intervention in these families is essential to eliminate violence and help family members heal from the trauma it causes.
Tomorrow, I am attending a workshop at Georgetown University on combining the departments of juvenile and social services. This is an idea for which I have long advocated. Nice to see the idea coming into its own. If ever there was a case that could have used a united juvenile and social services, the Lane case is it. I hope these terrible events are a catalist for people to start considering this idea seriously, as well as appropriate treatment when there are red flags.
- Warning signs parents can’t ignore (cnn.com)
- A Flawed System: Risk For Violence Overlooked Again (psychologytoday.com)
- Holiday Stress Can Amplify Mental Health and Substance Abuse Issues (wonderfultips.wordpress.com)
- Too many people with mental illness ending up in jail, health experts say (abc.net.au)
- Mental Health, Mental Illness and Homelessness in Canada – Portfolio Piece #10 (terrapuffer.wordpress.com)
- Mental health first aid training helps family, friends respond to crises (news-journalonline.com)
- Editorial: Equal Coverage for the Mentally Ill (nytimes.com)
- Why focusing on the mental illness of shooters could actually cause more mass shootings (erinbrodwin.com)