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In Support of the Students: Making Schools Safe Again

Keeping things the way they are is not tenable.

Ted Eytan, Wikimedia Commons
The crowd at The March for Our Lives in Washington, DC on March 24, 2018.
Source: Ted Eytan, Wikimedia Commons

I am writing this post in solidarity with the students creating a national movement against gun violence. The shock and initial reactions to the Parkland tragedy have passed and the students’ “Never Again” message to lawmakers must receive the undivided attention it deserves. As a mental health professional, I want to address the prevalent argument that lawmakers should not focus their efforts on gun control, but on making mental health treatment more widely available. While increasing mental health access is essential, it will not solve the problem, because many of the young men who perpetrate these crimes often do not present as having mental health disorders. However, the research on the impact of the availability of guns in this country is undeniable: firearm homicide rates are highly correlated with the availability of guns and the United States has the highest gun ownership per capita rate in the world. I believe the solution is not either/or: increased gun regulations or mental health services. We must find common ground between the political right and left to address both the access to weapons and the mental health challenges that can so easily result in self-harm or aggression against others.

We urgently need a continuous infusion of preventive methods in the place children spend much of their time: schools. Experts agree that improving school climate, including the school’s approach to discipline, social-emotional capacity building, and connection to community resources, all play an important role in mitigating some of these risk factors. For many children, school is one of the few places they feel safe and supported. But so often, this feeling of being held, cared for, and known does not include all children. For some children, school can be one of the first places they feel threatened and persecuted. It is no surprise that youth who have trouble forming connections with others or coping with their distress and rage target schools for their violent outbursts.

A great deal of attention has been focused on how to use the mental health system to predict and prevent school shootings by profiling youth, similar to how the FBI has tried to create profiles of potential assassins. But this line of work hasn’t been able to prevent tragedies because there is not one profile that can predict assassins or shooters. A need for fame, narcissism, and grievances are often present, but many adolescents share these attributes without becoming murderers, which makes it so difficult to profile a person who will commit a crime. However, there are common themes found behind school violence: social isolation and exclusion, dysfunctional family situations, and adults who did not pick up the relevant signals. This is not said to cast blame, but to underscore why we should not treat these issues as isolated events or the regular difficulties of adolescence, but as expressions of systemic failure that, left unchecked, allow for students’ conditions to worsen and become more dangerous over time.

So what should we do? First, we need to understand an important set of facts: A variety of risk factors that contribute to school shootings are also risk factors that are found in other psychiatric problems youth face (such as depression, conduct disorders, anxiety disorders and self-harm). The risk factors schools should be aware of include parental loss, alcoholism and violence in the family, drug abuse of a parent, a history of delinquent family members, ongoing parental strife, untreated learning disabilities, and school failure. Importantly, despite a very active research agenda of the past decade, we do not yet possess a full understanding about why these risk factors will lead one student to become aggressive and violent and another student to become depressed and anxious. For perspective, about 13 percent of students in this country have a mental health disorder, which is 8 million school-aged children in real numbers, and another 46 percent of students show symptoms and problems that don’t reach clinical levels but can still pose significant threats to self and others. Post-traumatic stress is on the rise and about a quarter of our children and youth will witness violent acts.

In our own work at The PEAR Institute: Partnerships in Education and Resilience at Harvard and McLean Hospital, we have put our informed bet on building systems for teachers and school staff to know every child at their school. The relationships students build in school with their teachers and peers helps shape their worldview and strengthen their mental health. Such mindsets, skills, and attitudes in each school will provide the very best early detection system and will create a safety net to catch young people before they wander unaccompanied into the pathway of mental disorders and violence.

The situation is not hopeless. Many of the tools to intervene are already in place: In this country, we have early detection systems to identify students who need help. We have designed training to help teachers deal with the social-emotional needs of their students, and we have good interventions that help youth who show early, sub-clinical signs of depression, conduct and behavioral problems, ADHD, and anxiety. While the practices, tools, and programs exist, implementation is still quite fragmented and leaves out many school districts across the country. Thus, there remains far too much room for young people to fall through the cracks. This is where our increased efforts have to be placed. Investing in these systems and early interventions and fostering them in schools where every child is known is essential for reducing severe violence and self-harm before students reach that crisis stage of despair and rage. Doing so is not as expensive as one would imagine, given that many services are already in place, but not well deployed.

Keeping things the way they are is not tenable. The protesting students are idealistic and sensible, more so than many of their elders. I propose that we, as adults, join them in championing solutions that make sense and take a comprehensive approach to the issue — stronger legislation for guns that were designed not for recreation, but for killing the largest number of people in the fastest time possible, funding for mental health services for those young people (and adults) who need specialty care, and a massive public health and education initiative that addresses the risks before mental illness sets in. Young people deserve safe communities of learning where they are known, where problems are proactively dealt with, and where data-infused early warning systems can support the mental health professionals and educators who help students leverage their strengths to address their challenges. We need to focus on helping schools build a proactive, preventative approach to mental health issues, so our country can be ranked first in educational accomplishments, not in school shooting deaths.