We’re the only developed country on Earth where this happens, and it happens now once a week. And it’s a one-day story. There’s no place else like this…This is becoming the norm. And we take it for granted in ways that, as a parent, are terrifying to me.
President Obama on school shootings
Yesterday was a dark day in Portland. It was the 15th school shooting since Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and 6 adult staff members in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. If you do the math, that is about one school shooting per month during the past 18 months! And as the President succinctly put it, it’s one-day news and we are on to the next sound bite. Unless of course you happen to be one of those involved in a shooting, then it’s lifetime.
Like most of the challenging public health problems we face today, there are no simple answers that will put a stop to the suffering inflicted on so many from these acts of violence. But a good place to start is understanding just how we got here in the first place.
HOW TO PREVENT SCHOOL SHOOTINGS? SOME CONTRIBUTING FACTORS WE NEED TO BE TALKING MORE ABOUT:
ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES
If you have never heard of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, it’s one of the largest studies every done investigating the link between childhood maltreatment and later life health and well-being. The take home message is that bad experiences early in life – psychological, physical or sexual abuse, emotional/physical neglect, and household stressors like domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental illness – all are associated with a laundry list of problems later in life. The more ACEs one experiences in childhood, the greater the degree of problems. While I have not reviewed every school shooter’s psychological profile, I am confident that if I did, most would have a background of ACEs.
DEVELOPMENTAL DEFICITS AND CONSTRICTIONS
One of my heroes is the late psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, who I wrote about just a few days ago. He helped me understand that our ability to successfully engage in all aspects of life necessitates the acquisition of hierarchical developmental skills that are learned through healthy relationships, starting with our first caregivers. These skills are critical for knowing how to initiate, develop and maintain healthy relationships. They allow us to make sense of our emotions and appropriately act on them. When the learning of these skills is hindered – often due to ACEs or parents who are developmentally stuck themselves – children struggle to make friends, have peer groups, and move down a dangerous path of disconnection, loneliness, and depression. For some kids, this cycle is fueled by anger that eventually boils to a rage, where the taking of lives is the ultimate revenge on a hard life.
TECHNOLOGY AND DIGITAL MEDIA
Society has seen a transformational increase in accessibility to all forms of media through the internet. But it’s not just more content that has changed our lives, it’s the adrenalin-stirring, real-life, real-time news that is now available to young impressionable brains. Combined with Hollywood doing their best to outpace the media, our tolerance for exposure to horrific content has risen significantly. My ten year-old son won’t let me off the hook until he sees Hunger Games, because all of his friends have seen it.
Kids these days are exposed to content beyond their developmental capacities. Technology has allowed those who suffer ACEs and developmental challenges to access disturbing media that plays a contributing role in school shootings. Even after 22 year-old Elliot Rodger recently killed six others before taking his own life, you can venture on to YouTube and watch him rant about his feelings and plans for revenge. As this type of content has become more readily available – and the media has covered school shootings ad nauseam – the norms of how kids discharge rage in schools has radically changed. For kids on the edge, witnessing others violence makes it all the more easy to justify.
Technology has also played a significant role in the deterioration of healthy human relationships, not just in schools, but all across America. In a study published in 2006, a quarter of Americans were found to have no one in their life with whom they could discuss intimate matters or personal troubles, a statistic that has more than doubled since 1985. Now eight years since the study, I am sure the outcomes would be even more grim.
While I know there will be continued debate on strengthening gun laws, enhancing school security, and improving our overall mental health system, none of these solutions will ultimately go far enough to address the above factors. As a society we are on a collision course with the future, not just in terms of school shootings, but with many global challenges that require our immediate attention. We must become adept at seeing the interconnection between problems, and identifying leverage points of intervention that have the power to redirect the fate of humanity.