What do school shootings tell us about our culture?

Another school shooting happened at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, OR — roughly 115 miles away from my home. Nine lives were claimed before the gunman shot himself. Ten more were injured. This is a terrible motif becoming all too familiar in the United States.

Candle light vigil held at the Umpqua Community College campus on the day of the shooting. Source: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

These incidents call for more than gun control. These incidents call for more than the rally around mental illnesses. These incidents call for a major overhaul of our cultures and subcultures.

We should broaden the context from the strict definition of mental illness to general mental health and coping mechanisms. If examined in the scope of psychology as currently practiced, none of this necessarily falls under the purview of mental illness.

From what I’ve read, some shooters display some signs of mental illness, but it is not diagnosed. Gun control laws might still fail to catch these people. These people could still have guns in their hands and we would fail to stop shootings like this. As for people with diagnosed mental illness, they are more likely to be harmed by others or harm themselves.

The primary reason for things like this is someone was unable to find a positive coping mechanism for their situation. No gun control laws existed — or could have existed — to protect them and the people around them. Using what they knew, they chose to commit a terrible act in order to attempt “fixing” their reality.

A somewhat cute take on the otherwise selfish “deal with it” meme. A lot of my friends and coworkers use variations on this meme in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but it does say something about how selfish our culture is.

Since there was obviously something wrong in this person’s world with which they were attempting to cope, they searched for ways to “deal with it”. The cultural influences they found themselves in lead them to commit this atrocity and these cultural influences need to be examined in more detail. However, wether it be toxic masculinity, fundamentalist or extremist attitudes, sexism, racism, or some other toxic culture, it is most definitely due to a flawed sense of how to cope with their situation.

A school counselor took this picture in a classroom. I found it on her blog.

Typically coping mechanisms are the purview of mental health and psychology, but it could equally be that we need a mature and mentally healthy culture based on the knowledge and practice embodied in psychology and mental health fields, instead of this juvenile, reactive, and short sighted culture in which we have found ourselves enmeshed. What does it say about us when the most readily available example of a coping mechanism in our media is domineering through violence, wether it be military engagements, police brutality, westerns, sci-fi, or news?

It is easy to say “Love the people around you”, and saying it will get us nowhere. What does it mean? First of all, it is an act. Find the person no one is talking to and be open minded. Find the kid that is sitting alone on playground. Understand that people are in all sorts of situations and places in their personal development. People might need someone who can be a parent, counselor, or best friend to them. It might be inconvenient to love someone. It might even be scary. It might take more time than you think you have.

A lot of people fall by the wayside and are neglected because of various “oddities” about them of differing degrees. Imagine someone who struggles to make more than the most basic connection with people and who has nobody to teach them about positive coping strategies. I would imagine they would eventually become frustrated with the situation after trying many things that don’t seem to work or that don’t make sense to them. I imagine they would settle with a maladaptive coping strategy that they can grasp and finally seems to imbue them with a sense of control over a situation they’ve struggled with for ages. Telling someone like this to “deal with it” won’t solve anything. It’s not helpful. It will only make things worse.

Anyone who chooses a detrimental action in order to deal with a situation they find themselves in is culpable for their actions. This goes both ways. If someone ignores someone because it is inconvenient to interact with them at the moment or because they think someone is odd or skittish, they have chosen to not love that person. They are culpable for possibly even further damaging that person. Saying that something is not your problem is avoidance, it’s a potentially negative coping mechanism. If someone chooses to deal with being the neglected or odd one by going on a shooting rampage, they are also just as culpable for choosing an abhorrent method of dealing with their situation.

What happens when people just don’t know how to deal with the situations in which they find themselves? Exactly what happens now. I believe we live in a culture that is ignorant of the correct way to deal with other people who don’t fit into any of our preconceived notions, our stereotypes, of how people are supposed to be, present themselves, or act. We damage each other one small ignorant decision at a time.

How do we fix this? At a minimum, we each need to understand more about our fellow humans. We need to understand more about ourselves. We need to understand what positive interactions and coping mechanisms are and how to deal with others who don’t have all of those skills. Beyond that we need to learn how to teach those skills.

It seems we need to start as early as we can. Kids should be taught these skills in elementary. It shouldn’t be left up to chance. Some kids grow up in family where these skills are the norm, but others don’t. Some parents never learned these skills and they aren’t able to pass these skills on to their children. Some teachers are really fantastic about these things, but teachers can’t catch every interaction in their classroom. Every chance a kid gets to be exposed to better coping mechanisms and positive interactions, they get better at dealing with different people.

It might be a utopian dream to imagine that one day we’ll be able to coexist with each other and deal with all situations in a positive manner. I think we can get close. I think we can make our lives better, more enriched, and more diverse through better interpersonal skills and coping mechanisms. I think we can put a little more effort into this and see some very positive results and many more healthy minds. I think humanity can do a better job of being human.