Every time there is a school shooting, I am asked by at least three people “what leads to that type of thing?” or “why would someone do that?” I tend to try and say something along the lines of “it is hard to say”, but since they know I am a social worker with a private practice the person often expects an answer with more substance.
The truth of the matter is that there are any number of reasons that a school shooting may occur. It is easy to blame to most obvious causes for childhood distress such as, problems with school and/or teachers or the go to catch-all of mental illness? Of course it can be any number of other factors, but it is prudent to look at these and one other as possible causes.
Bullying is something that has existed, honestly, since the first caveman felt he was superior to another caveman. the bullying that exists in current day is far different than that which has existed for millennia. In the digital age a bully has the ability to torture and humiliate someone while in their presence as they always have, but in the modern era a bully can also do so on Facebook and Twitter for the world to see. Once something is on the internet it can not truly be removed, further enhancing the torment. That type of bullying is infinitely easier for the perpetrator to commit and just as infinitely hard for the victim to address or escape. How does this relate to a shooting? If a person feels the whole world knows what has been said about them, there could be a feeling that it will take just as large of a show to solve the issues that were created. Even when the bullying is not cyber based, but face to face, the feelings that are created can have a finality and absolute view by the victim. Thoughts of a life being ruined forever, as teens often view things, can mean the only option is to lash out by attacking the bullies and those who laughed along, or in other cases, to commit suicide to end the pain.
With respect to teachers being too hard, that is something that again has existed for a long time, but where I believe it has less to do with a change in its nature or how it occurs and more to do with the views of teachers in modern times. When I was younger and I got in trouble, or was called out for something by a teacher, the first thought was not what did the teacher do wrong, but what was my role in it. I will admit often times it was me who was to blame, but there were also times when the teacher, not I, was in the wrong, and as such, those times were dealt with differently. With that in mind I must say that by having a relationship with teachers, students, and parents as a result of private practice work and simply being an adult, my view has changed. There are often times a student may be in the wrong, but it is almost always framed in terms of how the teacher should have addressed it differently. This can lead to a psychological perspective for a child or teen that they are always being picked on unfairly. Again, there are also times when, yes, the teacher is in the wrong, but that changes little with respect to the view taken by a troubled youth. Most times when a teacher is hard on a child or singles them out, it is seen by the child as he or she being wronged. If the teacher is then said not to be to blame, the child can see this as the world being against them, and due to that view, the finality aspect again can be created as a result. “If the world thinks I am wrong, I will be wrong and solve this so they are right.”
Mental illness is something that, for obvious reasons, can most definitely lead to a school shooting, but which is much harder to speak of from a generalized perspective. There are a wide variety of “mental illnesses” which all affect a person in a different way. Anxiety can lead to fears of the unknown or that the world is against you, as can certain personality disorders and psychotic disorders. Mood and anxiety disorders can lead to feelings of hopelessness and feeling as though one is powerless to change what is wrong with a person’s life. Mania (though a symptom not a disorder) can lead to a lack of control and impaired reasoning about an event or action. Am I saying all those with mental illness are dangerous? No, I am not saying that on any level. What I am saying is that mental health issues can compound things and lead to a feeling that the only option is to lash out at the world or that the only way one can show others how he or she feels is to show them or make them feel the pain being felt.
There is another thing that I also wish to point out as a possible cause which can be connected with all of those listed above or can exist separately. On one level I believe the following is not the fault of the shooter, but that is not to say I feel a shooter is not responsible for their actions. This being the notoriety gained as a result of a public shooting, bombing, attack. Take one moment and ask yourself this….
- Who was the officer who caught Lee Harvey Oswald?
- Can you name a single victim from a school shooting?
- How many people were injured in the Boston Marathon Bombing?
Most people would be forced to admit they can not answer any of these questions. Those same people, however, most likely would be able to tell you the name of the shooter at Sandy Hook or perhaps the face of the Boston Bomber. Why is that? Because over and over the faces are shown and the name is said, making those people infamous and remembered. I understand in an age of internet news and 24 hour news cycle, to avoid doing so would be seen as poor news reporting, but it also means those who feel nameless and as though no one will care or remember them when they are gone may feel doing something such as a school shooting will make sure they are remembered and listed in the history books.
What can we as a society do to counter any of these items? Honestly, that is the hardest part to write about as there is no simple answer. Yes, bullying needs to be curbed, but that is not some thing easily done and so we must focus on addressing the effects of it instead. Letting children know bullying is not the end of the world and focusing on coping skills would be time much better spent than thinking bullying can be completely ended. Mental health awareness must be raised. Yes, there is awareness of mental illness and the stigma has been greatly lessened from where it was in the past, but there is still that view that there is something wrong if a person seeks help. Television shows tend to focus on the extreme, which of course is for good ratings, but irresponsible as it makes it seem as less severe depression, psychosis or anxiety is not something that is to be taken seriously. With the notoriety item, that is something that won’t change. News stations, papers and online news will not change and be the only source not to report news, so again, the focus must be on the individual, not the source. Teaching children and adults that being remembered for something they did wrong is not simply a positive, it is a must.
No matter if it is bullying, teachers, mental illnesses, or especially seeking notoriety, working to increase coping skills and self-esteem in people would decrease these occurrences. Working with countless people who have dealt with self-esteem and self-worth issues, for decades in some cases, I can say this is a lot easier said than done, but working towards it must occur. This wouldn’t simply help with shootings, but societal issues as a whole. Working this into school curriculum could change things immensely, and by this I mean more than a once a year assembly, but daily affirmations of a child. We can never know what another is fighting simply by looking at them, even if it is on a daily basis, and as such, those affirmations, which may not outwardly appear to be needed, may be the thing a person needed the most.
Written by Justin Nutt, LMSW, CSW
SJS Staff Writer and Clinical Editor