Growing Up in the Era of School Shootings

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From a recent interview: 

We want to focus on this generation of children and how they are growing up with such traumatizing events as a regular occurrence.

- How is this affecting them? 

That’s a good question. Since experience shapes the behavior and psychology of young people, it’s important for parents, educators, and mental health care professionals to ask ourselves the question: how does this culture of school shootings affect our developing children? One obvious answer is that our kids are scared. I read an article that many parents may have seen about an elementary school child who asked her mother for new shoes after the Parkland shooting, because she was afraid that the lights on her tennis shoes would draw attention and be unsafe in case of a school shooting. So for one, kids live in fear.

But on another level, these shootings shape the perceptions of other angry alienated kids looking for an outlet for their rage. Each incident builds upon itself, and if you read the interviews with previous perpetrators, the shootings are a kind of competition. Each shooter tries to commit a bigger, more notorious crime in comparison with the last.

And then the other piece is that this has become somehow “normal” in America. Our kids walk through these active shooter scenarios at school like fire drills and disaster drills of our own childhood. They don’t question any of it, because it’s all they’ve ever known. It’s just the way it is for them. 

- What can the long-term effects be?

Long term, the school shootings are shaping a hierarchy where angry, enraged, violent kids have taken power from the rest of the kids. Most kids are scared, and they may feel helpless. We have seen an attempt by the more recent victims, especially in Parkland, to empower themselves again and address those feelings of helplessness by speaking out.

- What kind of adults will they potentially turn into?

One of the major points made by my book is that development shapes identity. During the formative years, especially the teen and young adult years, what kids are busy “being“ becomes their lasting identity. The kids who are scared and helpless are very likely to continue to carry elements of fear and helplessness in their identities. Any kids who see violence as a way to obtain power are likely to maintain that view as an element of their growing identity into adulthood. And any kids to see themselves as advocates for change are likely to continue with that as a quality of their identity.

Of course, there is a whole lot more going on in the lives of most of our kids than school shootings. Their identities will be shaped by many things: their home and family lives, the culture of their education, the current values and beliefs of their peer groups. But this element of school shootings plays a role that we are as yet unable to quantify. 

- Other thoughts based on your expertise?

I think some of the focus on shooters being victims of “bullying” and the suggestion that it’s the fault of the kids for excluding someone may harm kind, caring kids. It’s the empathic kids who really listen to these messages from adults, and I fear they may believe they are personally responsible if someone acts out rage at school. Certainly we want to teach kindness and inclusion, but I think it’s the adults who need to show up and support angry, isolated youth. That task is too much to ask our kids to navigate alone.

Posted on May 21, 2018 .

A Mental Health Tragedy Unfolds and the System Doesn’t Have an Answer

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Most of my clinical time as a psychiatrist is spent helping individuals and families who desperately want my help. There are myriad treatment options to improve the lives of people suffering with mental health symptoms, and they work.

But not everyone with symptoms is willing to receive help. A small percentage of clinic time is spent with a loved one seeking guidance on how to intervene when someone in their family is clearly sick, but refuses help. We talk about how to convince someone they need help, or even how to pressure them in the direction of help when necessary. And yet I know that patients themselves need to be on the team for treatment to succeed. Mental health treatment only works when the patient wants help and participates.

Mental health treatment only works when the patient wants help and participates.

This is on my mind after reading a news story about a person with mental illness who refused help, deteriorated, and eventually (predictably in this case) took his life. The man’s family had been pushing him to get help, which he did not want and rejected.

When we watch news stories about tragic mental outcomes that end in violence or suicide, it is often suggested that more awareness or more dollars will be the solution. But what happens when the sick person truly doesn’t want help, even when he needs it?

Our laws respect each person’s right to choose or refuse treatments, as they should most of the time- until the balance tips (and sometimes it does). Sometimes people really need help and don’t realize it. And while most people who choose sickness over side effects aren’t doing any harm, we don’t have much recourse for the few who trigger serious concerns.

Here in Texas, we can send a person for a few days to a mental health hospital if someone’s safety clearly depends on it, but doing so requires overt threats of harm to self or others, or such severe psychosis that a person cannot remain safe. Hospitalizations are short, and there is rarely time to implement any real solutions. Lasting care is still only available to those who agree to receive it, or those in forced care because they have broken the law.

When I encounter a situation where there exists a chronic safety concern (anything that won’t resolve in a few days), there is rarely a pathway to truly solve the problem without voluntary participation on the part of the sick person.

I tell families that people have a right to live with their symptoms and refuse treatment, if they aren’t hurting anyone. When the signs are apparent that something bad is bound to happen, but things unfold gradually, then the system doesn’t have an answer. The gap here affects only a small number of people, but it’s a big gap when safety is at stake.

Posted on May 14, 2018 .

College Parenting on Summer Break

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Final exams are coming, and shortly afterward, college kids will be coming back home for the summer break.

Students come home soon for summer break, and if it’s your first summer after your student left the nest, you may be wondering what to expect.

1.     Exhaustion is normal for a few days after final exams. Many students have been studying day and night for weeks. It’s not unusual to crash out for a few days.

2.     Don’t expect the teenager who left in the fall to come home a full-fledged adult by the first summer. Kids will revert to their default settings in their parents home. Realistically, your child is probably going to lie around and watch TV or play video games.

3.     If you’re expecting productive behavior over the summer, make it clear from the beginning. Do you want your student to get a job, or help out around the house? Don’t think he’ll do those things automatically. Make it clear what you expect from the get go.

4.     You’ll be annoyed. You’ve been missing your kid all year, and looking forward to having him home for the summer. But it won’t be all sunshine and roses. Expect to feel ignored, disrespected, and even used. Let go of your perfect images, and expect misunderstandings and growth opportunities as you cross this new threshold.

5.     You’re on the road to separation, but you aren’t there yet. If your student is still spending summers at home, she’s not grown and gone from the nest yet. She is still a kid in many ways. You have more ground to cover before she’s actually on her own.

Posted on April 30, 2018 .