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5 Things Psychologists Want You to Know After (Another) School Shooting

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Last week, it happened again.

A young man went into a high school with a gun — an AR-15, to be exact — and killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida. Like always, there are unanswered questions. Like always, both tensions and emotions are high. Like always, we start a national conversation that never seems to find its conclusion… Why did this happen? What did we miss? How can we prevent it from happening again?

To get some answers, or at least some insights, we talked to psychologists who have expertise in violence and its effect on communities. Here are five things psychologists want you to know after a mass shooting.

1. In the Aftermath of a Tragedy, Be Honest

Whether you’re a parent talking to your kids, or a politician talking to her or his constituents, Joel Dvoskin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, says honesty is the best policy when you’re processing a tragedy — even if you have to say, “I don’t know.”

“The kids who are the most vulnerable are generally the most negatively affected by news like this,” he told The Mighty. “Don’t lie to them, they need to know they can trust you.”

There’s a balance, Dvoskin said, between over-flooding someone young with too much information and withholding crucial information because the reality is so scary. You can navigate this by letting the child run the conversation, Dvoskin said. After providing the basic information, answer any questions that come up as honestly as you can.

It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know.’ If the correct answer to a question is, ‘I don’t know,’” he said. “Do not lie to your kids. That’s the by far the best advice I can give anybody. I would say the same thing to civic leaders about how they talk to their constituents.”

2. Don’t Throw Around the Word “Mental Illness”

Former American Psychological Association president and current professor of educational psychology at Temple University Frank Farley, Ph.D., argues that those who say “mental illness” is to blame after a shooting are not only perpetuating stigma — they’re wrong.

Not in the sense that there isn’t something mentally unwell with someone who carries out such a horrible act — but that there’s no literal, all-encompassing mental illness to describe those capable of doing such harm. When it comes to what people do, he said, versus what people think and feel, the cause is most likely a multitude of things. While a mental illness can be one issue, it’s not the trigger. And it’s definitely not where we should be focusing our preventive measures.

Even if someone has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, factors like a history of violent victimization early in life, substance abuse and exposure to violence can be important indicators of “who” becomes violent.

“One key thing would be that he went beyond most of what we think of when we think of mental illness, by virtue of what he did,” said Farley. “Not what he said, not what he might have felt or explained to somebody, not what he’s said over the last several years. It’s what he did that is so radically beyond the usual world of mental health and mental illness. He’s in a category by himself.

In a statement released by the American Psychological Association (APA), APA President Jessica Henderson Daniel echoed this sentiment:

While law enforcement is still piecing together the shooter’s motives, some public figures and news reports are focusing on his mental health. It is important to remember that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness. Framing the conversation about gun violence in the context of mental illness does a disservice both to the victims of violence and unfairly stigmatizes the many others with mental illness. More important, it does not direct us to appropriate solutions to this public health crisis.

3. We Don’t Have Enough Information

Farley also asserts one of the reasons we don’t know how to prevent mass shootings is that we don’t know a lot about the people who commit them.

“They’re just so unusual and so extreme, we don’t have studies on the people who commit mass murders, very much because they usually end up dead,” he said. “If you’re having delusions, we know a lot about that, we can fit in a diagnosis in many ways. If you’re depressed, we know a lot about that. This is beyond deep knowledge at this point.”

Research on gun violence, including gun suicide, is also limited. Since 1996, there’s been a ban on federal funding for gun violence research that could be seen as “pro-gun control,” a measure that was enacted by Congress and championed by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Recently, Health and Human Secretary Alex Azar said he was committed to encouraging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence within the department, signaling a potential change in policy. 

4. Gun Violence Should Be Treated Like a Public Health Issue

Despite what little we do know, psychologists like Farley say the evidence suggests we need to look at how people access guns. “Guns are at the heart of this national problem. The evidence is growing by the minute,” he said. 

The APA argues we should tackle guns like we do other public health issues, noting that harm caused by motor vehicles, toxic household products, tobacco and other products with inherent risks have been significantly reduced once tackled in a systematic way.

It adds that because “there are currently no reliable methods to accurately predict which individuals will or will not engage in firearms violence at a particular time or under specific circumstances,” more research about gun violence needs to be done — and preventative policies put in place.

5. “Profiling” Doesn’t Work When It Comes to Mental Health Care – We Should  Be Helping Everyone Who Needs It

With or without mass shootings, access to mental health care is a problem in our country. Dvoskin — who was quoted above — said in an 2011 interview (which, he told The Mighty, is sadly still relevant today), profiling people based on their mental illness diagnosis does little to prevent violence. A worthy fight, however, is making the mental health system more accessible and effective for everyone. That way more people get the help they need. “‘Profiles’ are of so little use in preventing violence,” he said. “However, it is very easy to identify troubled people and troubling situations, and to use kindness and common sense to provide help for people who obviously need it.”

Dvoskin also wrote that lack of funding in mental health budgets has made it harder for the mental health system to provide effective crisis responses for people who need them. With more resources, the mental health system could potentially help prevent mass shootings. But, as Dvoskin said, “This takes all of us; an electorate that is willing to invest in public mental health and public safety.”

Getty image via RoschetzkyIstockPhoto

Originally published: February 22, 2018
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