Can We Prevent the Next Sandy Hook?

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, we want what we can probably never have: answers about how such a tragedy could happen. We’ll probably never know about the specific triggers in this case and whether anything could have stopped the shooter from bringing those guns to a school full of children. But even if we don’t know what drove this young man, we do understand a good deal about what sets the stage for his kind of murderous acting-out. And if we take a step back, we can make some changes to help reduce the odds that such a horrendous tragedy occurs again.

We live in a complicated world these days. The flowering of the digital age has connected us in ways we couldn’t even dream about a few decades ago. But it shouldn’t be surprising that such powerful technology has both positive and negative sides. Take gaming: If you haven’t checked out a video game in the past decade or so, you really should. Digitalization provides an experience so real, you can get lost in an alternative universe. Unfortunately, for a disenfranchised few, this is exactly what happens. Although there’s still some controversy over this, the bulk of research shows that someone who plays a lot of graphically violent video games ends up less sensitive to violence — his heart rate won’t speed up at the sight of blood and mayhem on the screen, and his skin won’t get sweaty. He just isn’t bothered.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the top-selling video games realistically depict war and hand-to-hand combat, when violence is everywhere in our culture. The media bombards us with it — CSI, Law and Order, and Criminal Minds are all about rape, dismemberment, and probably even more gruesome crimes than that. To blame the media for all our troubles however, would not only be unfair but inaccurate. After all, we live in a free economy based on the principals of supply and demand. So the real question is: Why is the demand for these video games so high? Why are so many people so interested in immersing themselves in such murderous experiences?

You can start to get an answer to these questions by looking at the profiles of society’s shooters. The commonalities are glaring. Virginia Tech, Colorado, Columbine: In every case, the violence was committed by young males described as generally quiet and unassuming but who turned out on deeper examination to be isolated and disenfranchised, filled with rage and hatred. It’s no wonder that this kind of young man would turn to video games that allow him to feel powerful while acting out his anger and rage. But it’s not just these few who feel angry and alone. Suicide is the second most common cause of death for our adolescents these days. It is clear our youth are in crisis. Yet the majority of teens suffering from mental health issues are not receiving any type of treatment.

That, to me, is the great missed opportunity in these horrible tragedies. While we have made some strides in overcoming the stigma associated with mental health issues, it is evident we have a long way to go. Parents still feel such shame and embarrassment that they often simply deny that there are problems. But the majority of teens do not magically ‘grow out” of of these issues. They need help.

They especially need help with depression, a very common problem for teens and young adults.  Unlike adult depression, which typically manifests itself in a lack of energy and a feeling of hopelessness, adolescent depression very frequently triggers anger and irritability. A depressed teen is likely to be apathetic and isolated-feeling, helpless and hopeless — but instead of curling inward as an adult might, the teen is likely to act out. So, all too frequently, here’s what you have in a depressed male teen: overwhelming feelings of insignificance, isolation and anger; a heavy dose of exposure to alternative universes where violence reigns; and easy access to weapons. It all adds up to the profile of a potential shooter.

The good news is that treatment not only helps, it works. It is, however, incumbent upon us to make the offer of help more appealing. Embarrassment and shame are difficult feelings to manage. Adolescents are egocentric by nature; they really, deeply care about what others think about them, so the stigma attached to metal health issues can make them unwilling to acknowledge that they need or want treatment. The only way this dynamic is going to shift is if parents do — if they start to understand that a child’s depression or other mental health condition is not a sign of parental failure, nor a red flag that indicates a monster in the making. It’s ignoring these problems that’s more likely to make the monster.

Kids and teens won’t speak out about their problems if their parents won’t. It’s time for parents and mental health professionals to open our eyes and our hearts and reach out our hands. No matter how much we wish it, we can’t turn back the clock to save the children of Sandy Hook. But we may just save the children of our future.

What do you do to nurture empathy and caring in your child? Share your story in the box below.


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Jennifer Powell-Lunder

Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder is a clinical psychologist specializing in work with children, adolescents, young adults, and their families. She is the author of the book Teenage as a Second Language (Adams Media 2010). She is the creator of an interactive and informational website for parents and tweens and creator and co-writer of a website for the parents of teenagers.

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