There Are No Clear Warning Signs

It's a lot harder to profile a teen shooter than you think

Posted Dec 21, 2012

Liza Long, author of "I am Adam Lanza's Mother"

It’s not surprising that parents of school shooters never expected their child to do such a thing. The realization that a child you love is capable of inflicting such pain and horror should be enough to drive you into a psychotic state of rage and anger yourself. Several days after the tragic shooting in New Town, Connecticut, a brave woman, Liza Long, wrote “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother: It’s time to talk about mental illness,” a touching article about the trials of a mother and son moving through America’s mental healthcare system. The article has sparked a national discussion about the effectiveness of the system with many doctors and parents in agreement that the medical community is devoid of resources necessary to tackle the mental conditions that give rise to the type of violence that ruins so many lives.

Let’s grant that mental healthcare needs a major overhaul. How do we do it? How do we determine which kids are truly mentally ill and not just angsty? When children speak of harming themselves or others, how do we determine they’re in need of serious psychological care and not merely a grounding for being inexcusably melodramatic? Tragedies such as Columbine, Virginia Tech and New Town leave us with a renewed interest in answering these hard questions. The problem is not merely with the “system” but also with how we understand mental illness. The media tells us that most rampage killers are neglected by their parents, bullied by peers, obsessed with death, avid violent videogame players, socially-withdrawn adolescents unable to regulate their emotions. In other words, these children are freaks. No wonder the parents of school shooters don’t intervene in time to stop the mayhem—it takes a rare breed of parent to view a child in such a light.

While there are astute, assertive, genuine good mothers out there like Lisa Long, there are plenty of other parents who have a similar view of their children with an insidious agenda. They are the abusive parents, the one's who always manage to find a flaw. None of us want to be one of those. We want to believe our children are good, that they are capable of amazing things if given a little support here and there. Sometimes a virtual bomb must go off before we start to wonder if our children aren’t capable of taking the road we’ve wanted them to choose. But it’s our responsibility to make sacrifices on our children’s behalf, even if it means that graduation is delayed while they receive mental treatment they need. 

Our desire to help our children is greatly complicated by the fact that psychology cannot give us a list of warning signs for becoming a mass murderer. Doctors simply haven’t identified what leads children to kill their peers. We have some ideas: school shooters tend to be depressed, rejected by peers (but not always outcasts), suffering from a significant loss, and unable to cope with anxiety. Most of them have no history of drug abuse, cruelty to animals, excessive exposure to violence in the media, or common psychiatric signs for risk taking behavior. Okay—school shooters usually aren’t the jocks.

As far diagnostic history goes, one study found that there are generally three different kinds of school shooters: traumatized, psychopathic and psychotic. Traumatized shooters are most often the victims of household abuse with at least one parent suffering from substance abuse and a criminal history. Psychopathic shooters are symptomatic for schizophrenia or schizotypal personality disorder (paranoid delusions, delusions of grandeur or auditory hallucinations). But what’s most alarming is that many shooters are psychotic: despite coming from intact families with no history of abuse or incarceration, the kids just snap.

Not only are we unaware of what triggers such rage, we aren’t yet able to generate a list of clear warning signs for this violent behavior. Of course, when a child starts making threats of violence, we take it seriously. Or do we? If your typically happy child, upset at a classmate, makes some hormonal-sounding passing comment about wishing she were dead, would you merely reprimand her? Or would you have her committed? What reason can you point to for taking such a course of action? Is it truly better to be safe than sorry when being safe might be so costly should you be wrong? Until we have a concrete understanding of what causes psychosis, the road ahead remains rocky for parents. As we continue this national discussion, let’s not get distracted by the importance of gun legislation at the expense of another major piece of the solution to teen violence. Let’s figure out how to help our children before they reach that point of no return. 

For a detailed meta-review of reaserch on school shootings, check out: Flannery DJ, Modzeleski W, Kretschmar JM. (2013). Violence and School Schootings. Current Psychiatry Reports 15:331. DOI 10.1007/s11920-012-0331-6 

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