Mental Health Should Not Be Used as a Scapegoat to Address Gun Violence

Credit: Kat Smith (Pexels)
“The warnings around Nikolas Cruz seemed to flash like neon signs: expelled from school, fighting with classmates, a fascination with weapons and hurting animals, disturbing images and comments posted on social media, previous mental health treatment.” — Chicago Tribune

I recently wrote a piece: How do we stop school shootings? In it I offered up some ideas on how we can address this issue. I also addressed the issue with using mental health as a scapegoat to avoid the real problems related to mass shootings, and school shootings. I’m not denying that mental health is a factor, but to refer to it as a “red flag” fails to capture the complexity of this issue, and further ignores the fact that most people with mental health problems of any kind never present with violent tendencies. The effect of this goes to paint a much more negative picture of people with mental health diagnoses, and those people have it bad enough as it is without being further seen as potential criminals and mass slaughterers of American youth.

This is a follow up piece to expand on more of my concerns with the narrative that’s being pushed. Specifically, the quote above reads as if it should have been obvious, that those items, even individually, should have warned us. I’m arguing that the only bit that made it obvious was the fact that he bragged about torturing animals, had been planning it, and that he was flagged by the FBI due to comments he made on YouTube. All the rest, either viewed together or separately only goes to complicate our efforts in identifying the next assailant.

From my perspective, if we were to remove the abuse of animals, and posting disturbing images to social media, we’d be talking about a significant swath of teenage kids who may have these issues, but grow up to be productive members of society, although there will be many who still struggle as well.

I find it to be problematic that ‘previous mental health treatment’ is a “red flag” when it presumes that the person sought help. To me, previous mental health treatment can mean any number of things, but to use it as a red flag to profile the next school shooter seems disingenuous without the full scope of what “previous” means.

Having said that, using expulsion as a “red flag”, or even behaviors in school as a red flag to “profile” the next school shooter also has its flaws. Looking at the United States Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) — there were 3,172,403 students who were suspended in 2011/2012 school year, and 111,018 expulsions. Based on data from 2000, 2006, and 2012, we could estimate that there’s been 15.9 million suspensions, and 517+ thousand expulsions between 2014 and 2018. There’s an average of 3 million suspensions, and 100 thousand expulsions per year. Despite comprising 16% or so of the student enrollment in any given year, black children make up 38% of suspensions, and 36% of expulsions. White kids make up over 50%, and hold the same percentages which means that black children, particularly males, are disproportionately suspended and expelled.

The use of suspensions and expulsions to profile any future criminal is problematic just because of the disproportionate nature that these consequences have on kids of color and with disabilities, it’s problematic because these two events are influenced by a number of things.

First, suspensions and expulsions tend to be driven up by zero-tolerance policies. There are some instances in which a child is suspended for seemingly trivial things (wearing a shirt with a pot leaf, drawing a gun, etc.), but students also get suspended for more egregious actions as well, such as: getting into a physical altercation, cussing out a teacher, having drugs on them or in their vehicle on campus, or for bringing a firearm or other weapon to school.

Second, expulsions and suspensions are a broader symptom of other issues. For example, children with disabilities, mental health needs, children living in poverty, and subsequently those kids who are victims of abuse, neglect, and trauma — also are expelled and suspended more frequently than those that do not. Behaviors at school are often times a red flag that something is going on at home.

Basically, being expelled is a sign of poverty, trauma, and no-tolerance policies long before they’re a sign that something violent is going to happen. Even worse is the fact that these two means of dealing with behavior often make behaviors worse by setting the child back. As a mental health counselor, when I see a new kid come into our services that has a history of expulsions, suspensions, behaviors, truancy, etc., my thought is not “this kid is going to be the next Columbine”, I think “this kid has a lot going on and needs some help on how to navigate this rough terrain we call ‘life’”. Frankly, if a kid is fighting with other peers, this to me indicates that they need to learn coping skills, impulse control, communication skills, and conflict resolution skills.

If the Chicago Tribune’s narrative is to be used as a means to identify the next criminal, then we would have to screen out over half of black children, and a third of white kids based only on fights, suspensions, and expulsions. To put this narrative in comical perspective using Malcolm in the Middle: Stevie would be “flagged” along with Reese. Worse still is that it presumes that Francis is most likely to actually shoot up a school seeing as his behaviors have historically been bad enough to warrant military school.

Once again looking at NCES statistics, we see that in 2015 about 7.8% of students reported having been in a fight on school property within the previous 12-months. Based on enrollment data, that would mean about 3.9 million students were in a fight, 25% of which were black kids, and 36% were white kids. That said, these numbers triple or quadruple when we include getting into a physical altercation (22% total, 20.1% white, 32.4% black) in any place, including school grounds.

If you haven’t noticed, or been convinced by this point why suspensions, expulsions, and school fighting is problematic to serve as a “red flag” in profiling the next school shooter, let me make it clear for you: the “numbers” would have us looking for a person of color with a history of these disciplinary actions, fighting, history of trauma, and possibly a disability. Yet, so far as I have been able to recall, nearly all of the calculated mass school shootings have been carried out by a teenage male, or white adult male.

Earlier, I said that we could estimate that there’s been 15.9 million suspensions, and 517+ thousand expulsions between 2014 and 2018. Here’s why this number is important. Everytown’s been counting school shootings since 2014, which they tally up to “nearly 300” as of 2018. That said, NCES has a report that shows that between the 2009/10 school year, to 2014/15 school year there were 9,287 instances in which a student took a firearm to school. Using Everytown’s data, and NCES, we find that Everytown accounts for 2% of these instances. On average, there’s about 1,500 of these events a year. Newtown’s report on school shootings includes college campus shootings, goes on to report that of 160 shootings, 45 of those consisted of unintentional shootings (12), and firearm discharges with no injuries (33), which accounted for 28% of those shootings. Another 59% involved intentional shootings, and 12% involved suicides. Everytown also points out that perception may be a part of this equation: we hear more about it on the news than we used to.

The fact of the matter, though, is that most kids take a firearm to school from home. Based on Everytown’s estimates, and conclusions from other sources, that range is anywhere from 56 to 79% of the time. This means that the presence and accessibility to a firearm was the risk factor in conjunction with behaviors, etc. Even Everytown points out that shootings were more likely to happen due to the presence of a firearm, that the firearm didn’t reduce the likelihood of a shooting.

The Chicago Tribune also points out that the shooter had a “fascination with weapons.” I struggle, too, to see this as a “red flag”, primarily because our culture very much already glorifies weapons. Depending on your source, somewhere in the range of 29–32% of Americans own a firearm, and somewhere in the range of 32–48% of Americans live in a household with a firearm in it. Two-thirds of gun owners own multiple weapons. Using “fascination with weapons” means that we should screen out the 66 to 73 million people — or 19 to 21% of civilians — who own more than one firearm, or one type of firearm. “Fascination” is a strange choice, but the phrasing leads to some whacky conclusions if taken to its extremes.

That said, if we’re to take a fascination and glorification of killing animals as a red flag for mass shootings, then we would need to question every man, woman, and child who goes hunting, or has a deer head hanging on their walls. This may seem like an absurd extreme, but it serves to highlight the importance of context. Hunters of all game collect trophies in the form of stuffed animal heads, trophies that serve no other purpose than to perpetually glorify their slaughter of another living being. Whether you’re a meat eater, or a vegan, hunting is a hybrid of both a glorification of death and a fascination of weapons.

Abusing, harming, or killing animals is indeed a red flag. Most criminals who are incarcerated for intense violent crimes have a history of intense abuse directed towards animals. Psychologists have pointed, though, that animal abuse may be an indicator that the person is a victim of violence in the home. Their violence towards animals may well be a mirrored action. That said, other psychologists have also pointed out that the type of abuse is an important indicator. Depending on the age, curiosity may well be a factor. The violent aspect of the abuse is what differentiates the direction of the “red flag” narrative. To this end, the Chicago Tribune is correct in saying that this red flag wasn’t enough to stop Cruz from purchasing firearms.

That said, using animal abuse as a red flag fails to fully capture the problem. It’s like labeling marijuana a gateway drug, even though most kids who smoke marijuana began smoking tobacco or consuming alcohol first. While there will always be anomalies and exceptions to the rule, studies show that in 60% of people who present with animal cruelty as a behavior experienced violence and trauma. Fundamentally then we don’t just need to teach kids empathy (or rational compassion), we need kids to stop being victims of abuse. That’s the real tragedy of all of this.

The problem with the narrative being pushed is that it’s so broad. Even if we were to take the Chicago Tribune’s exact narrative in order to tailor a very specific subset of people, the fact of the matter is that medical and mental health professionals already do this, whereas politicians, policy makers, and the general public will not. The function of this narrative works against our long term goals.

Let me put all of this to you another way: People who smoke often eat excessive mints, or chew gum to tame their breath. People who smoke often get lung cancer. Correlation does not equal causation. Using this example, the narrative about kids with behaviors in school, expulsions, and suspensions being used as “red flags” for identifying the next school shooter is like looking at people who chew gum, or eat mints, to identify the next cancer patient. We’re looking at a symptom of a shared cause, rather than the actual cause. Animal abuse presents itself not like chewed gum, but like looking at an increased frequency of respiratory infections, or coughing up blood. It means that there’s something significantly wrong that needs to be addressed. In both circumstances (animal abuse and respitatory infections/coughing up blood), neither are causes, per se, for a mass shooting or lung cancer — but there’s a significant enough correlation to suggest that it’s a sign that something is wrong, and that something worse could happen if it’s not addressed.

I’m not advocating against trying to identify the next criminal, or that we should not try to prevent the next shooting. What I am cautioning against are imbalanced narratives that in effect can lead to continued discrimination. Kids who present with behaviors at school do not need to be immediately judged and questioned about whether they’re going to be the next Cruz, or Cleabold. They need so much more before that point, like how to resolve a conflict, or communicate their feelings, or how to deal with change, or be removed from an unsafe environment.

We need a cultural shift that emphasizes safety in the home. If you’re going to own a weapon and have children — lock your weapon up, unloaded, with ammunition secured separately. For all the talk about “personal safety”, nonchalantly leaving weapons lying about, loaded, and unsecured unequivocally places your child at risk. Is your “personal safety” more important, or more valuable, than the life of your child, or the children of other people?

The cultural shift shouldn’t just be on the part of gun owners and safety precautions, the cultural shift needs to also be about flagging, and reporting those red flags — like animal abuse, threats, and plans. Kids need to feel safe reporting those concerns, observations, and things that they witness and hear. Most imperative to this argument is that teachers, counselors, law enforcement, and families need to have the resources to adequately address these issues.

To that end — yes, please, let’s boost funding, resources, and access to effective, quality, and appropriate mental health services. We can only gain from this. But let’s not use mental health problems as a scapegoat, or even the general cause of these crimes. Yes, let’s address behaviors in school. But let’s not conflate what could be behavior due to being a teenager at the most basic level with the possibility that they’ll be the next mass shooter.