The Anatomy of a School Shooting

Teenage violence points to importance of addressing mental health issues in adolescents

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

On the morning of Feb. 27th, a child walked into a school cafeteria and opened fire. The violence, which has left at least 3 dead, has shaken the small town of Chardon, Ohio.

T.J. Lane, the allege shooter, may have randomly targeted his victims. What could have caused him, or anyone, to commit such an unimaginable act of violence such as murder?

While it would be an oversimplification to blame a single source for teenage violence, psychologists have targeted key signs and symptoms - noting that violent actions like this point to a greater need for mental health issues to be taken more seriously.

Facets of a violent act

Psychologists know that frustration and anger are natural human emotions. Everyone feels these emotions at some point or another. However, the way in which we deal with these emotions can vary greatly and is learned - primarily from parents and guardians, cultural values, and entertainment media.

According to Dewey G. Cornell, Ph.D., a forensic clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia, there are broad cultural factors involved in teenage violence - including direct contact with violence, cultural acceptance of violence, and portrayal of violence in the media.

In particular, modern movies, shows, and video games cause a significant cultural desensitization towards violence. Heroes regularly addresses his or her problems with violence and are glorified. However, almost everyone is exposed to violent entertainment, but only very few react with physical violence.

Cornell explains that if a large population is exposed to the influenza virus, only a small amount become very ill - those with the weakest immunity.

Similarly, "the violence pervasive in our culture is like an environmental toxin; everyone is exposed to it, but only those who are most vulnerable or have the greatest exposure, are affected," said Cornell.

Robert M. Pressman, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and Director of Research for the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology, adds that “one of the things that we do know is that this ‘virus’ does effect everybody. What it does is raise the bar for culturally acceptable aggressive behavior.”

Often times aggressive individuals are the victims of aggression themselves. Whether through bullying at school, difficulty at home, or otherwise. According to Dewey, aggressive behavior in children is most quickly taught through direct contact with aggression itself. Those children who do not have a system of social support to deal with their problems are at an increased risk of displaying violent behavior.

Those in contact with aggressive behavior often become societal ‘outliers’ or loners. They tend to have feelings of rejection and alienation which can lead to deeper social frustration and anger.

“The central core of all of this is alienation,” explains Pressman. “School has an enormous impact, when children are failing it becomes very noticeable to them around 4th or 5th grade. These students then start to recognize themselves as failures - other students notice at this time as well. That is where alienation starts.”

Pressman notes that in many cases, students like T.J. Lane are enrolled in special behavior programs at school, which may aid in the alienation process. “All of these kids - without exception - feel a lack of respect, prestige, or power. A plan to commit violence can develop as a way of correcting this.”

The Stigma of Getting Help

There is often times a stigma attached to mental health issues - and parents, teachers, and guardians may fail to get children the help they need for fear of social backlash. However, the importance of properly addressing mental health issues cannot be understated.

"Some parents believe that there may be a stigma attached to mental health issues. All this may be true, however the risks of failed identification of a serious problem far outweigh the benefits of early identification," says Pressman.

There are a few key signs to look for in a child in need of psychological assistance

  • Decreased interested in skills or hobbies
  • Significantly increased irritability
  • Reduced showing of emotions
  • Repeated statements displaying a lack of self worth
  • Sudden and dramatic decrease in academic performance

Dewey asserts that we can do more to prevent school shootings, including better psychological care for children in schools, less access to weapons, and stricter regulation on violent entertainment for youths.

Any notes or communications whatsoever, no matter where they occur, regarding suicide, homicide or otherwise must be taken seriously - an expert must be contacted immediately.

Review Date: 
March 2, 2012