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What Do Our Children Learn From Another School Shooting?

Our children our watching our response to another elementary school shooting.

Key points

  • More than 20 people were killed in a school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022.
  • About one in five high schoolers considered suicide in 2019. Social media and other factors are not enough to explain the mental health crisis.
  • The theory of learned helplessness says that poor mental health comes from have no control over a painful, threatening situation.
  • Children and adolescents can see that we have not acted to protect them. Depression may be a rational response to a threat they can't control.
Photo from Markus Spiske on Pexels.
At least 23 people were killed at an elementary school today.
Source: Photo from Markus Spiske on Pexels.

There is a mental health crisis among children and adolescents in the United States. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that about one in five U.S. high schoolers seriously considered suicide in 2019, part of a trend of increase reaching back since at least 2019. Over a third of students felt persistent feelings of helplessness or sadness.

Learned helplessness is a theory about what causes depression and other mental health problems. The studies that originated the theory involved putting dogs in a cage where the floor was electrified. It hurt them, but no matter where in the cage they went, they could not escape it. After spending enough time in pain and powerless to stop the hurt, they stopped trying. Even when the researchers put them in a new situation, where they were able to avoid electric shocks by moving to another part of their cage, they failed to do so. They just lay down and accepted the pain that someone else had the power to inflict on them. Learned helplessness theory suggests that problems with mental health are the result of learning from past experience that you can’t control the pain that is visited upon you. You are like the dog, unable to escape a world that’s been created to hurt you.

On May 24, 2022, an 18-year-old man murdered at least 21 people–19 children and two adults–at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. There have been 27 school shootings this year. There were 34 last year. In the last five years, there have been 119. In 2020, firearms were the leading cause of death among children and teens in the U.S.

As a psychologist, I have been thinking a lot recently about why so many adolescents are suffering from poor mental health. As I have written recently, one cause—or accelerant—of poor mental health may be social media. Seeing other people’s manicured advertisements for their happy, healthy, and successful lives can make people feel inadequate and unhappy with their own lives (even if other people’s social media accounts mask their own suffering). If you have been thinking about a break from social media, getting offline may be one way to feel better.

Yet the levels of unhappiness among adolescents are too high for a single action—cutting back on social media—to be enough to solve the problem. There must be other causes.

We have seen many school shootings in the U.S. I remember digging into journalistic and psychological accounts of the Columbine shooters when I was still contemplating graduate school in psychology. It was painful to think about that school shooting, but it still felt like a relatively rare event. I didn’t believe that we would pass new gun control laws, but I believed that the country was united in wanting to prevent these kinds of events from happening. Keeping children safe at school felt uncontroversial, and like a problem that we might find a solution to.

One piece of cultural commentary on gun control sticks out to me from recent years. Journalist Dan Hodges wrote, “In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” The most obvious response to thousands of children being killed in schools by guns seemed to be making it harder for people who might be criminals or mentally unstable to get guns. Yet nothing happened. Worse than that, we watched as conspiracy theories bloomed on the internet like a spore, claiming that parents whose children were shot to death at school were somehow lying about or acting out their sorrow and rage. We didn’t just accept that children could be killed at their schools, we sent death threats to the parents who mourned for them.

Among those who oppose gun control, it is often pointed out that it is the derangement of the killer that is the real culprit. What we really need, this argument suggests, is not more gun control, but more mental health services. People who show signs that they might want to commit a terrorist act against an unsuspecting school need access to psychological care. Of course, that’s right, too! It would be great if the people of this country would decide to create and fund a large network of mental health services for people who were angry, violent, and needed to find peace and connection before they did something to harm themselves or others. There are also thoughtful conservative commentators who have advocated for Red Flag laws, which would allow us to temporarily prevent access to guns for people who appear likely to commit violence.

Yet there is never any large-scale response to children getting murdered in their schools that doesn’t include gun control. If the problem with the proposed solution—gun control—is that it won’t work, or is too much for people to bear, then surely we must need to come up with something else, another potential solution? Yet no serious solution is ever advocated for.

Children need the guidance and protection of their parents and adults in their community. To flourish, they need to feel safe. They need to feel like we, the adults who create and run their society, will try our best to protect them. Yet after watching us, again and again, fail to take any action to cut down on school shootings, how could they? What could they have learned from watching politics in the U.S., except that they are in danger and there is nothing they can do about it. They are like the dogs in Martin Seligman’s learned helplessness experiments.

Photo by Caleb Oquendo on Pexels.
We can decide to protect our loved ones if we act together.
Source: Photo by Caleb Oquendo on Pexels.

Our politics are too divided, too much about savaging opponents, and too little about actually solving people’s problems. Our children have seen the way people talk about David Hogg, a survivor of a school shooting, and an outspoken organizer who tried to find ways to change our laws so that no other children would have to go through what he did. He has been harassed, shouted down, and faced seven assassination attempts precisely because he advocated for himself and others.

My family members go to schools and work at schools in the U.S. I don’t believe we will protect them. Children are much smarter than we give them credit for. They see the world, often with more clarity than adults. They understand that it is up to angry, extreme voices seeking to harm their opponents to decide to take the action needed to safeguard their lives. And they can predict, like any of us paying attention, that again, nothing will be done. Adolescent depression in modern society may be just a more accurate perception of reality.

Yet that is not the world we need to live in. In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln said that U.S. democracy was “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This country was founded on the principle that we can make the world we, as a people, want to live in. Living together, working together, and building together, we can decide to coordinate our actions to change the world. We just have to choose to act together.

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