Recently I participated on a video conference call with students and staff from various school districts in Washington County about the growing concerns of school violence and the impact resulting from the shooting in Parkland Florida. The growing fear in our youth is understandable and normal as there is a collective sense of powerlessness among our children. This most recent shooting is not the start of this discussion but a reigniting of debate started years ago. The unfortunate fact is that nothing has been done to calm the fears other than to let time pass. However, as shown by the courage of the Parkland High School students, the time is now to create change. But how do we create change. First it is important to understand school violence more accurately. Mental illness is not the driving cause of school violence. Sure, kids who shoot up a school definitely struggle with something but it is not just those diagnosed with a mental disorder. School violence is a symptom of many issues we face today. Drilling it down to one issue such as mental health or guns is irresponsible. According to a recent article on gun violence by the American Psychological Association, the authors reported that there is no single profile that can reliably predict who will become violent. They continue to identify that there is a complex and variable constellation of risk and protective factors that leads a person to be more or less likely to use a firearm against themselves or others. However, there are some things we know that works to prevent and reduce the risk of gun violence either on themselves or others. Creating programs in schools and other environments that encourages a culture of non-violence. For example, schools creating a district wide campaign of non-violence as a way to resolve issues or problems. But that requires us as adults to change the way we handle behaviors. As a society we are a punishment-oriented society which illustrates a tit for tat mentality. You do something I don’t like, I will punish you for it. Unintentionally we create a culture that encourages retaliation for hurting or disrupting our daily functioning. Setting up ways to safely resolve conflict, encourage belonging and support to students that are struggling to maintain appropriate behavior as opposed to exclusion and rejection.
Although there is not a direct link of violence to mental health, mental health is a factor in why someone would try to commit such a tragic act. A Native American proverb “Hurt People Hurt People” illustrates this concept as people that commit such violence are trying to cope with some adverse experience or painful event(s). Normalizing mental health in society is also important so we encourage people to recognize that expressing yourself to a trusted adult is a sign of strength and not weakness. Expressing your feelings, especially with males, is often characterized as a weakness when in actuality being self-aware and going against social norms by expressing themselves to a trust adult is an act of courage. Aligned with normalizing mental health, building resilience in our youth to equip them with the skills to manage stress safely should be a priority. All behavior, no matter how violent or difficult to understand, comes from a developmental need not being met. One developmental concept, originated out of Native American child rearing practices and advances in neurosciences is the Circle of Courage. (https://reclaimingyouthatrisk.org/courses/the-resilient-brain/) This developmental model is universal and focuses on meeting the needs of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. When these needs are met, kids will thrive. However when we have broken circles, kids struggle. In trying to understand the why’s of things like school violence and determine effective solutions, meeting the needs of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity provides an excellent foundation. When we lack belonging or worse feel rejected and abandoned, our ability to reach out to others is difficult and unfortunately can lead to self-destructive behaviors such as self-harm, suicide and violence towards others. Building a community of love and acceptance has to be a priority for us all. Life & Purpose Behavioral Health is a community mental health agency focused on helping those in need and work to support other entities in improving the overall health of our community. In addition to providing mental health services, we also provide training and consultation in areas of Trauma informed care and trauma specific intervention, strength-based intervention, neuro-effective treatment and developmentally appropriate interventions. If in need of training or consultation, please go to our contact page on this website.