Updated: Feb 18, 2018
So many have been asking why a 19-year old boy would enter a school and kill 17 innocent people, and injure 14 others. Why?? How does a person get to a point in their lives where they make that choice? I am going to attempt to answer that question today, from the perspective of a mental healthcare professional. This is just one facet of a much broader picture that involves societal issues that remain open to debate. I will only be discussing the mental health aspect of this case.
Please keep in mind two very important things. First, this event was 100% the shooter’s choice and responsibility (I will not be using the shooter’s name). Second, when I talk about mental health, I am talking about the broad spectrum of mental health... we all fall somewhere along this spectrum. I am not speaking about mental illness. There is not yet any evidence that the shooter was diagnosed with a mental illness. It is clear, however, that he had poor mental health.
Here’s what we know, as of today. The shooter was adopted. We don’t know the circumstances, or at what age this occurred. His adoptive father died of cancer when he was 12. He had dozens of run-ins with the law. His mother repeatedly called police to the home to deal with his violent outbursts, threats, and self-destructive behavior. He was never charged with a crime.
The shooter was obsessed with guns, was viewed by others as “weird”, and appears not to have had any friends. He had a history of harming animals. He made explicit threats on the Internet to commit violence. His mother died in November 2017, from complications of the flu, and the shooter was subsequently expelled from school for violent behavior.
Research on school shooters tells us that they have several things in common. They feel a strong sense of disconnection, feel isolated, have high levels of stress, and high levels of aggression.
High levels of stress can lead to at least three possible outcomes: Anxiety, depression, and/or impulsivity. Stress causes the body to create the stress hormone, Cortisol. Cortisol, known as the “fight or flight” hormone, when elevated, increases the risk for mental illness, lack of resiliency, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and a lower life expectancy. It also interrupts a person’s ability to concentrate and learn.
A child who has high levels of stress, is firing up parts of their brain that are responsible for safety, putting them on high alert, but also keeping their frontal lobe, which is responsible for memory and concentration and learning, from being fully functional. In order for a child to be successful at school, they need to know that they are cared for, cherished, and safe from harm. A child in fear is much more likely to act out and be disruptive, because their brains are operating from a fight-or-flight perspective.
What, you might be asking, does this have to do with our shooter? Well, pretty much everything. Because stress begins a cycle. A stressed out child acts out for two reasons. One, their levels of Cortisol are high, so they are unable to learn, and become disruptive instead. Also, they are much more likely to be depressed, which means they may feel a sense of hopelessness. Let’s look at these two issues, separately.
A disruptive child is typically labeled as a BAD child, when he is, in fact, a hurting child. He is a desperate child. This is a child who is crying out for help. We need to hear a child’s disruptive behavior as “I’m hurting. I need help.” It might not be immediately obvious to us what the problem is, but we need to take the time to explore and find out. This requires a connection with the child. In a dysfunctional home, or a stressed home, sometimes a strong connection with the parents is not possible. And here’s the important thing to remember. If you remember only one thing from this blog post, please remember this. IT ONLY TAKES ONE CARING ADULT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN THE LIFE OF A CHILD. It could be a librarian, a coach, a janitor, the lunch lady, a therapist, a youth pastor, a neighbor, a friend’s parent... just one. And YOU might be the one. It takes someone to connect with that child, and figure out why they are hurting. Maybe he misses grandma, but daddy told him he has to be strong and not to cry. Maybe he’s afraid there’s a ghost in his closet, but mom told him there’s no such thing as ghosts, so he can’t talk to her about it. The reason could be small, or it could be big (think trauma, abuse, and neglect). Either way, we cannot give up on these children. It is worth the effort to figure it out. A look back at the history of school shooters shows us that most of them were labeled as problem kids, with a lack of connection.
Depression in children often looks different than it does in adults. Instead of sadness and tearfulness, it can be expressed as irritability and combativeness. Depression in children is often overlooked for this reason. The hopelessness that comes with depression is the part I want to address here today. Lack of hope means that no matter what I do, it doesn’t matter. We need to create hope where there is hopelessness. Violence begins with hopelessness and disconnection. Again, it only takes one caring adult to help a child or teenager find hope. Feeling safe, socially connected, and hopeful, reduces Cortisol and the likelihood of violence.
The shooter was 100% responsible for his actions that day. However, there were multiple failures in multiple systems that led to him be in the state that he was in. Disruptive children need to be taught, as early as possible, that they are loved and worthy of care. They need to be taught how to make friends, how to ask others to play, how to join a group, and how to share their gifts. Everyone has gifts. They need to be seen. They need connection. They need hope.
So now that this awful thing has happened, how can we help our children who have been traumatized by this event? This is another question I have heard over and over this week, and so I will offer some quick tips.
Acknowledge that the situation exists. Be real and be honest. When children don’t have information, they will make things up to fill in the gaps. Give them just enough information to keep them from creating their own scenarios. Be sure what you are telling them is age appropriate.
Be present and connected. Listen to your children. Hear their fears and concerns. Watch for signs of anxiety and depression.
Get back to a normal schedule as soon as possible. Even though we may be tempted to keep them home from school, they need to know that we think it’s safe for them to be there.
With reference to the above, consider your child’s own variables, like past trauma. Be sure it’s not your own past trauma that’s guiding your decisions, but theirs.
Limit access to the media. That includes television news, cell phones, etc. Repeated exposure to videos showing actual scenes from inside the school can be highly traumatizing.
Love them hard. ♥️
As I write this, I am on the waiting list to go to Parkland and provide crisis counseling to the students and families who were involved in the shooting. I am glad for the opportunity to be of service. I am also afraid of what I will see and hear. Nonetheless, my bag is packed, my schedule is cleared, and my car is filled with gas. If I am called, I will be ready. If not, I will find other opportunities to help.
Shout out to Jeff Shearer of Tykes & Teens, my former place of employment, for providing encouragement and information for this blog post. Your work is invaluable to so many in the community. Thank you.