How Plato Can Save Your Life

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The Culture Of Violence and Psychologically Vulnerable Teens

Can video games, guns and mental health issues lead to school violence?

The story of the school shooting from Newtown, Connecticut was beyond our worst nightmares; the horror almost too much to bear. Over the years, we've almost grown accustomed to the idea of mass shootings at shopping malls and at schools. Afterall, there have been 62 mass murders in the United States over the past three decades.

Yet the shock of what happened at the Sandy Hook Elementary school has jarred even the most jaded and hardened of news-watchers. While we may have gotten somewhat numbingly used to death on our evening news as images from Iraq and Afghanistan have nightly visited our living rooms, or as stories of the mentally-unhinged like Jared Loughner or the James "Batman" Holmes shootings become almost common-place, there is something truly unsettling about the carnage that occured in Connecticut. These were truly our most vulnerable and innocent that were killed--children only 5 and 6 years old! We are simply not used to hearing about the indiscriminate slaughtering of innocents that are so young.

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So we sift through all of the disturbing images and the various horrifying news reports in order to try and make sense of the senseless. Yes, we hear words such as "evil", but that would be too simplistic. Of course this was a monstrous act that defies logical explanation, but what might we, as a society, learn from this almost unimaginable act of violence?

I became compelled to write this blog because I have worked with many young men like Adam Lanza (the alleged shooter in Newtown) in my role as a psychologist, university professor and school social worker. Although I have never met Adam Lanza, the news reports indicate that he was a socially isolated young man whom, according to his family, had  Aspergers Syndrome. We also have read that he was a video-game enthusiast (there had been an entire bedroom in his 4,000 square foot home devoted to his computers and computer games). And, according to police, when they searched his house, they found evidence that he was a devotee of graphically violent video games.

And then there were the guns. According to several news reports, Adam was a trained gun enthusiast who had been taught how to shoot by his mother (who would also become his first victim). His mother, in an effort to develop a stronger bond with her son, shockingly took this fragile boy to target practice at shooting ranges.

Before I continue, I'd like to make myself explicitly clear: I am in no way implying that any of these factors, in and of themselves, are the causes of the horrible events that transpired in Newtown, Connecticut; neither his Asperger's, nor the guns nor the video games were, as stand-alone events the causal factors responsible for the carnage in Connecticut.

In my clinical experience, Aspergers students can be the most sweet and wonderful people to work with. They are certainly almost never considered at risk for harming others. But there are certain characteristics of a child with Asperger's that can be a confounding variable when combined with other risk factors.

We talk of Asperger's children having social deficits with an impaired ability to experience empathy; Asperger's children also sometimes have a very active fantasy life with challenges to their reality-testing. What effect on this type of profile would the addition of violent fantasy games have?

According to Nancy Alspaugh-Jackson, the director of ACT Today, a major autism treatment program in Los Angeles--and also the parent of an 11 year-old with autism: "It would be unfair to say that every child with Asperger's will become a mass murderer, but combining Asperger's with his troubled family situation, a sense of isolation--no job, no school--and no care and treatment, is a recipe for disaster". She goes on to say, "Every parent of an autistic child--unless they are not being honest with themselves--worries that their child could do something to harm themselves or others. Especially as they get older because we live in in such a violent culture, and these children can find it difficult to distinguish fantasy from reality."

I ask again, what happens when we add violent and vivid vidoes to this mix? In my own practice, I have seen the devestating effect of violent video games on vulnerable and fragile teenagers with an already problematic sense of self-concept. Indeed, over the last couple of years I've had three teeneagers that I've worked with that had to be psychiatrically hospitalized with gaming-induced psychosis.

For a relatively balanced and healthy teeneager, playing video games isn't necessarily problematic, but for more vulnerable teens who have underlying mood or thought disorders--or, in Adam's case, a developmental disorder like Asperger's--it can be a contributing factor in a "Perfect Storm" of violence. Especially when you add access to firearms (as young Adam Lanza had) and you have all the ingredients for disaster.

Indeed, when renowned child psychiatrist Dr. Harold Koplewicz was asked by the New York Daily News to comment on the role that Adam Lanza's Asperger's might have played in the shooting, he responded: "Having Asperger's disorder by itself doesn't put someone at higher risk for killing someone or killing themselves, but feeling socially isolated, feeling trapped, feeling educationally overwhelmed, feeling tremendous despair without any tools to get your way out of the box, can lead to any human being to desperate measures. Unfortunately, the ability to get access to guns makes this a potentially lethal combination."

I support Senator Lieberman's recent proposal intended as a response to the Newtown shooting to create a commission that can explore the intersecting variables of what he termed our "Culture of Violence"; this commission would look at the role of our popular culture, the impact of our ability to access guns as well as the role of the mental health services community. To deny that all these variables--guns, mental health, violent imagery--played a role in the horror that occured in Newtrown, Connecticut would be to deny the obvious.

The real challenge is what to do about these various impacting factors that contribute to our aforementioned "Culture of Violence"? First amendment advocates will, rightly, cite the first amendment and free speech and cry censorship regarding any efforts to control problem imagery; Second Amendment advocates will oppose any efforts to limit gun access. And mental health advocates will use the battle cry of "client rights" if any mention of compulsory treatment is brought up.

Yet without such a meaningful dialogue wherein real solutions are generated, episodes of school violence like the ones that we've seen at Columbine, Virginia Tech and now, Newtown, Connecticut, are, sadly, destined to continue.

Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor at Stony Brook University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.

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