Why Do High-Profile Violent Events Really Occur?

The tragedy at Columbine High School over twenty years ago seems to have set a precedent for many individuals who perpetrated similar school shootings over the following twenty years. Some individuals who were planning a school shooting similar to the one that occurred at Columbine High School were fortunately intercepted early by one or more people who noticed the signs of either someone in distress and struggling and planning an attack of a similar nature. Yet some of the perpetrators of subsequent school shootings identified with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the individuals who killed their peers, teacher, and themselves at Columbine High School. For various reasons, these other perpetrators identified with Eric and Dylan or someone else who perpetrated an act of destructive violence, causing multiple deaths. Langman (2010) describes many of these shooters feeling like a “nobody,” and each found a more powerful “somebody” to identify with and, in some cases, emulate (Langman, 2010, p. 134). These perpetrators seemed to share feelings of not measuring up within their families, to their parents, and to what their older siblings were achieving in their lives. For some of the perpetrators, this was not how their parents made them feel. It was either their interpretation of their interactions with family members or their perception based upon the delusions they were experiencing as a result of their mental illness.

All of the perpetrators of these high-profile violent events did struggle with mental illness, although not every individual was diagnosed with a mental illness during their lifetime or at the time they perpetrated the attacks.

Langman (2010) places school shooters into three categories: psychopathic, psychotic, or traumatized. Regardless of the category and the severity of these symptoms or illnesses, more mental health treatment services need to be available for anyone who needs help and anyone who displays any signs of harming themselves or someone else.

Before most of these perpetrators were even teenage age, they were depressed to the point of contemplating and attempting suicide. They developed violent tendencies, homicidal thoughts, and all of them developed suicidal thoughts.

One example was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza who sunk to a state in which he was barely functioning. He was not in school, and he did not have a job. Having virtually no peer relationships, no friends, nor romantic partners, and like struggling with one or more diagnosable mental health disorders, he was depressed and suicidal. The experience of profound inadequacy and powerlessness may have driven him to seek the experience of absolute power over others. The way to do this was through violence (Langman, 2018, p. 6). Langman (2018) notes that Lanza may have grown increasingly psychotic, increasingly losing touch with reality. Lanza resembles other school shooters in his educational failures, lack of employment, failure to establish any intimate relationships, biological challenges to his masculinity, thwarted military aspirations, and the lack of any meaningful social connectedness (Langman, 2018, p. 9).

People should have paid more attention to the signs that were there and shared the information with others, whether it was the peers that knew something about their peers within schools and even adults working with students who recognize students struggling or writing about violent themes. Adults within colleges and universities noticed students who are adults at the time. While staff may not think they can contact their parents because they are adults now, if there is a threat to self or others, they must take action, get the person to safety, and notify those who the threat is directed towards at this time. There were even some unusual signs that Major Nidal Hisan displayed before his attack at Fort Hood, which should have prompted military and government officials to intervene in his daily activities.

Alathari et al. (2019) describe the U.S. Secret Service’s Threat Assessment Model as one that both law enforcement and other public safety agencies have systemic responsibilities to investigative and identify individuals who exhibit threatening or concerning behavior; gather information to assess whether they pose a risk of harm; and identify the appropriate interventions, resources, and supports to manage that risk. The Mass Attacks in Public Spaces — 2018 reports that over three-quarters of the attackers had made threatening or concerning communications, and a similar number had elicited concern from others. Further, more than half had histories of criminal charges; over two-thirds had mental health symptoms, and/or illicit substance use or abuse (Alathari et al., 2019). Most attackers had at least one or more significant stressors occur in their lives within less than one and up to five years of the attack. The stressors most often faced by the attackers were related to family or romantic relationships, work or school problems, contact with law enforcement in which some instances resulted in criminal charges, and personal issues (Alathari et al., 2019).

The most concerning commonalities among the perpetrators of the high-profile violent events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Fort Hood Army Base, Paducah, KY, and the shooting of Congressman Gabriel Giffords are the same as those commonalities that occurred before and after the Columbine tragedy. The recently released report from the U.S. Secret Service, The Mass Attacks in Public Spaces — 2018 contains those same concerning and prevalent commonalities among the perpetrators outlined in the report the U.S. Secret Service released in 2002 regarding school violence, The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Alathari et al. (2019) describes how nearly all of the attackers engaged in prior threatening or concerning communication and exhibited behaviors that caused concern in others, and two-thirds had histories of mental health symptoms or treatment. Most had a history of suicidal behaviors, with many of the perpetrators killing themselves after killing so many other people.

Given so many mass attacks and high-profile violent events continue to occur with similar commonalities, this country’s focus needs to be on improving mental health treatment and reporting when one observes warning signs of distress in someone. Schools, workplaces, businesses, places of worship, and virtually anywhere and everywhere we need to be mindful and watchful to be preventative, which is how we can stop this from continuing to happen and to save lives.

This article was written by Stephanie Schweitzer Dixon, a suicidologist, crisis intervention, and mental health educator. Ms. Schweitzer Dixon is the former Executive Director of the Front Porch Coalition in Rapid City, SD, a nonprofit, outreach organization where she coordinated its L.O.S.S. (Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors) Team which responds in partnership with law enforcement to reach suicide loss survivors immediately after a suicide death occurs, bringing hope and resources to those traumatized and grieving. She also works with schools and communities in the aftermath of suicide deaths. She provides suicide prevention, intervention, postvention, and CIT training to first responders, behavioral health professionals, service providers, school counselors, parents, and community members. For more information on these topics and developing law enforcement suicide prevention and mental wellness programs and on how to assess for risk of suicide, violence, and how to develop suicide prevention and violence prevention curriculum, and trauma-informed trainings, contact Ms. Schweitzer Dixon via email Stephanie@ssd-consulting.com or her website: http://ssd-consulting.com.

References:

Alathari, L., Blair, A., Carlock, A., Driscoll, S., Drysdale, D., & McGarry, J. (2019). Mass Attacks in Public Spaces — 2018. U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), U.S. Department of Homeland Security, July 2019

Langman, P. (2010). Why kids kill: Inside the minds of school shooters. New York: NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Langman, P. (2018). The enigma of Adam Lanza’s mind and motivations for murder. schoolshooters.info, version 1.2. December 30, 2018

Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W. (2002). The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center.

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Stephanie Schweitzer Dixon

Experienced mental health professional with a demonstrated history of working in the mental health, crisis response, and suicide prevention fields.