The old cliché is that “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” This is true in many regards and in particular to understanding the psychology of youth violence and criminal behavior. While there are no 100% accurate ways to predict who will become violent and who won’t, a violent history or background is a major red flag. It is a warning sign of potential future violent outbursts.
However, recently we’ve begun to see a new breed of youth violence appear. There has been a trend of shootings and murders committed by people who haven’t previously demonstrated truly violent behavior. We read stories about them and expect to see them described as monsters. But instead, people close to the situation describe the individual as “mild mannered” or explain that he was “nice to everyone around him.”
How is it that these individuals become violent? And why does it seem to appear out of the blue? Surely people don’t just wake up one morning and decide to shoot up a school or a movie theater, right? As a forensic psychologist, these individuals were a mystery to me. But what started as one or two anomalies has quickly grown into a pattern. I believe we are now seeing two major groups of violent perpetrators:
Type A – “Chronic Offenders”
1) They have a history of violence and/or were raised in a neglectful or deprived environment. They exhibit chronic aggressive behavior and display anti-social attitudes. Intelligence is typically average or below. Without help or intervention, they lack the coping skills to be cooperative members of society and turn to violence.
Type B – “Erupters”
2) This group does not have a history of chronic violence. Their family environment growing up was satisfactory. IQ ranges from average to extraordinary. They are not anti-social, although they are often seen as socially awkward. They fail to attach to others due to psychosis, autism, head injury, or other neurological or mental health disorders.
These people may have misperceptions of social cues that are paranoid. They may appear pro-social, but they are primed to explode. When they encounter what they consider significant life stress, they are unable to function in society. This stressor may be perceived as a significant injury to their ego or identity. The deeper the wounding, and the weaker the supports, the greater the outburst will be, up to and including murder or mass murder.
Think of some of the recent stories you’ve seen. James E. Holmes, age 24, killed 12 and injured 58 outside a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012. He was self-described as “quiet and easygoing.” Others said he was exceptionally bright. There was no history of violence. He was a PhD student.
Adam Lanza, age 20, killed his own mother at home and went on to kill 20 children and 6 adults in a shooting rampage in an Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012. He was an honor student with no criminal background.
Aaron Alexis, age 34, killed 12 and injured eight in office building in Washington, D.C. in September 2013. Although he had a history of misconduct and low-level violence and had been arrested twice before, it never reached the point of prosecution. He was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics.
Jared Lee Loughner, 25, killed six people and wounded 12 others. He severely injured U.S. representative Gabrielle Giffords. Jared was a college student. He clearly had a mental illness that went untreated. This was exacerbated by substance abuse and life stress.
And Karl H. Pierson, age 18, recently set off an explosive device and shot and killed a 17-year-old female student in Arapahoe High School in Colorado. He follows a similar pattern to the second group.
Despite differences in the characteristics between “Chronic Offenders” and “Erupters,” we can still screen and identify who is at risk by using objective risk assessments. We can prevent attacks and save lives by offering customized treatment that directly addresses their specific risk factors.
A major key to our success relies on prioritizing mental health treatment. For every violent outburst we see, there are probably countless others prevented thanks to a school guidance counselor or related professional. These services must become more widely available, accessible, and affordable. Inter-agency communication between juvenile justice departments, schools, and mental health institutions needs to improve. And we must do a better job at reducing the stigma. Seeing a mental health professional should be viewed as everyday as going to your primary care physician.
These undertakings require an initial investment of time and resources, but in the long-run they will help to reduce violence and the U.S. incarceration rate, the highest of any civilized nation. With the average cost for incarceration ranging from $26,000 to $60,000 and 1.5 million people behind bars, we know that the costs of violence are high if treated after the fact. We can no longer be reactive in our approach. From an economic perspective, violence prevention makes sense. From a moral standpoint – the fact that we can save the lives of innocent victims and get perpetrators the help they need before it’s too late – it’s just the right thing to do.
Written by: Dr. Kathy Seifert
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- Dr. Kathy Seifert