Gil Noam Ed.D., Dr. Habil

The Inner Life of Students

Three Mass Shootings in a Week: Addressing Mental Health

We need prevention that starts in preschool.

Posted Aug 12, 2019

Working at the crossroads of mental health and education, I’ve had to weigh in on the impact of mass shootings more over the past year than ever before. Even when it doesn’t happen at a school, the impact on children and families both directly and indirectly is immense.

Additionally, the perpetrators of all three high-profile mass shootings were males between the ages of 19-24, which some researchers believe should still be considered adolescence. We all know the talking points that come after these tragic events: we need more gun control, less violent video games, and more funding for mental health. These points are repeated enough that many have become numb to them.

If the U.S. government decided to fund mental health initiatives to prevent future violence, where would these investments make the biggest difference?

First, there should be increased funding to provide intensive services for those who show signs of violence coupled with major psychiatric symptoms that often go untreated. While most people with mental health problems are not violent and are more likely to be the victim of crimes than perpetrators, there is still a subset that needs treatment to enhance public safety. That said, we cannot let the aggressors off the hook by pointing to mental illness when their violent actions are motivated by hatred, toxic online communities, and movements with distinct white supremacist ideologies.

In addition to those immediate, emergency investments for high-risk people, we need long-term solutions. For every person who has a clinically-diagnosed mental disorder, there are more who are vulnerable with limited support networks, past trauma, and anxiety about the world around them.

To tackle this, society is best served by taking a preventative approach to mental health by starting early and building supports in school, where children spend more than 12 years of their lives. Most children see a dentist before their teeth begin to rot and have regular checkups with a pediatrician before major illness strikes. It is time to address mental health similarly and early on—the real meaning of the word health, not a euphemism for disorder—an approach we at The PEAR Institute have termed “knowing every child.”

After decades of working with schools and afterschool programs, we have found that the keys to building a strong mental health system include supportive relationships between youth and adults; a strengths-based approach to understand young people’s social-emotional needs and resiliencies; proactive systems (not reactive, crisis-driven ones) that focus on building strong schoolwide mental health; and the use of data to assess youths’ mental health and better understand the growth of each student.

Funding for proactive mental health in schools should be used to build out research-informed, teacher-tested best practices that support social-emotional development. These practices should be implemented at three levels:

  1. Whole school initiatives that create a positive climate based on strong relationships, promoting healthy behaviors, especially around diversity and inclusion for all, and highlighting youth strengths to improve wellbeing and academic success
  2. Training and additional resources for teachers and counselors to create targeted groups for young people showing early signs of problems, especially aggressive ones, who also have strengths and resiliencies that can be further developed
  3. A referral process for the smaller percentage of youth who have significant, diagnosable disorders and need individualized support from trained professionals.

By focusing on all three levels, schools can address not only the issues of youth who may otherwise turn to violence, but they can also increase the resilience of the whole school.

Obviously, this approach will not prevent every shooter and all mental illness. There is more work to be done as a society to address the glorification of violence, toxic online communities that normalize hatred, and easy access to high-velocity weapons.

But taking a health-focused, preventative approach that starts in preschool would have an extremely high yield for the investments made to support it, not only in preventing violence but also by lessening the suffering caused by mental health problems. We have much of the know-how available to us, but do we have the will?