Mental illness cannot predict school shooters, experts warn
July 18, 2018 | By Chuck Lindell
Placing a greater focus on meeting the mental health needs of students is necessary to improve lives and reduce violence, but the effort is not guaranteed to identify — let alone stop — the next school shooter, experts warned state senators Wednesday.
Before their mass shootings, most school shooters nationwide did not have a recognized mental illness, experts told members of the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security.
“Our predictability about identifying a mass murderer is very, very low, so we really should be focusing on the broader group of students who are at risk, have difficulty in life, have these concerning behaviors that we can intervene and make their lives better,” said Dr. Clifford Moy, a psychiatrist representing the Texas Medical Association.
Instead of focusing on mental health as a way to identify the next school shooter, “we need to identify who needs help” because most youths with mental illness are more likely to hurt themselves or be hurt by somebody else, said Dr. Jeff Temple, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
“We cannot make mental health the boogeyman. These kids who are mentally ill, whether it’s mild or more severe, they need our help, they don’t need our finger pointing,” Temple said. “Because what we know is that if we marginalize these folks more, we’re going to make the problem worse.”
Wednesday’s public hearing at the Capitol was the third held by the committee since a student killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School in May, this one focusing not on guns but on a search for what the committee agenda called the “root cause” of mass killing attacks — including the impact of violent movies, music and video games that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has blamed for contributing to a culture of violence that allows young shooters to devalue life.
However, Temple said there is “really good evidence” showing that mass shootings or violent outbursts are not caused by exposure to violent video games and other forms of media.
Dr. Andy Keller, president of Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, said he “100 percent” agreed with that.
But Dr. Iram Kazimi, a child psychologist with the UT Health Science Center at Houston, noted that while exposure to violent media does not cause violence, it has been found to significantly increase short-term aggressive behavior in teens, including being disrespectful to adults or being more likely to believe that others harbor ill will against them.
In other testimony Wednesday:
• Of the 1.9 million Texas children with a diagnosed mental health need, the vast majority have mild conditions and do not have a heightened risk of violence, Keller said. He recommended focusing efforts on the estimated 20,000 youths who have a higher risk of violence if their conditions are not treated, particularly the roughly 900 youths with psychosis who are 15 times more likely to be violent.
• While the number of school shootings has risen, it is important to remember that they are rare events, Keller said. “We need to not have parents thinking it’s more dangerous to send their child to school than it used to be. It is not,” he said.
• Many speakers pleaded for more school counselors to identify students in crisis. Teachers also need training on how to identify mental illness and, more importantly, how to find help for those students, they said.
• Morgan Craven with Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public interest group, warned against zero tolerance school policies for violence. From January to May, more than 1,400 Texas students were arrested for threatening violence in schools, a dramatic increase that Craven attributed largely to the response to the February shooting in Parkland, Fla., left 17 dead.
“It’s funneling a lot of kids into the justice system unnecessarily,” Craven said.
The committee of six Republicans and three Democrats will hold its final hearing Tuesday on a potential “red flag” law that would allow judges to take guns away from those deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.
The Senate committee plans to release a report on its recommendations for legislative action in August.
In addition, multiple House committees have been holding similar hearings on school violence in preparation for the legislative session that begins in January.