The School Shooter Problem and the Mental Healthcare System
It’s been reported lately that there is a mental health crisis among young people in the US. Depression and anxiety are on the rise. Some claim they know what causes it, and some don’t. The usual suspects include social media, bullying (especially bullying on social media), academic pressure, the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation, and uncertainty about the future. Fear of and reactions to school shootings are in the mix, too. The problem has garnered interest among the people who have the capacity to address, if not actually solve, the problems.
President Joe Biden announced in his 2023 State of the Union address that the Department of Education will divvy up $240 million in grants to help schools tackle the crisis. If you average that by 50 states, it comes to around $50 million per state. A more accurate estimation considers that, since there are 16,800 school districts in the US, that, on average, each district would get roughly $141,000 for youth mental health to be spread around all the schools in each district – not really very much. That money, plus the billion dollars invested last year, is earmarked for more mental health counselors and mental health professionals in the schools.
All that is well and wonderful, but what are the problems that lawmakers want those funds to solve? Apparently, many lawmakers and public policy boffins think that preventing school shooters should be the primary goal. Identifying the kids that are likely to resort to weapons to settle their differences with schoolmates and teachers seems to them to be the most effective use of the funds. The basic debate is whether those funds should be used to identify and treat potential school shooters or help the students who are traumatized by the incidents and by the looming threat of more – prevention of violence versus reaction to the threat itself. In general, Republicans want to address finding and preventing the shooters, while Democrats seem to prefer ministering to those affected by the shootings – and enacting gun control. (I’m not getting into the gun control debate right now.)
Democratic senator Chris Murphy raised the issue in the wake of the school shooting deaths in Uvalde, Texas. “Spare me the bullshit about mental illness,” Murphy said. “We don’t have any more mental illness than any other country in the world. You cannot explain this through a prism of mental illness because we’re not an outlier on mental illness.” Biden also played up the necessity of dealing with the repercussions of the school shootings: “Address the mental health crisis deepening the trauma of gun violence and as a consequence of that violence.”
When it comes to getting shooters into treatment, though, there are problems. Differences in opinion are rampant on whether psychological treatment can prevent school shootings. Partly, it’s a problem of anosognosia. The potential and actual school shooters do not think they have a problem – and the same can be said for many of their parents – so they’re not very likely to make it into the mental healthcare system or gain any benefit from it if they do.
Another reason is that CBT, the currently favored treatment option, really doesn’t have anything that would address the incipient violence of students who are so troubled that they think it would solve their problems of anger, isolation, revenge, desire for fame, bullying, or whatever other factors may be implicated. It’s also worth noting that many, many students are bullied, mocked, ostracized, or otherwise demeaned. The vast majority of them do not go on to become school shooters, or the problem would be worse than it already is. (Personally, I was subject to some extreme bullying in school – and had access to guns and no access to mental healthcare at the time. I never shot anyone or ever thought about it.)
Perhaps the best that can be expected of mental healthcare right now is ministering to the bereaved and the traumatized. Until or unless we come up with some way of more reliably identifying and treating potential shooters before they become actual shooters – something that has yet to be accomplished – we’ll be more adept at cleaning up the aftermath.
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