Talking To A School Shooter

Talking To A School Shooter

The other day I had the privilege of talking to a school shooter. When I say privilege, I don’t mean it in a way to glorify what he did, but it’sThe other day I had the privilege of talking to a school shooter. When I say privilege, I don’t mean it in a way to glorify what he did, but it’s not everyday that an opportunity presents itself for me to try to get into the mind of someone who was determined to carry out mass murder. Often these people kill themselves or are killed before anyone has a chance to understand why they did what they did, or like the Parkland shooter, are kept very isolated with only the psychologist and a handful of corrections officers having regular contact with him.

As a psychotherapist, this intrigues me. In undergrad I excitedly took classes such as Profiling Serial Killers, Understanding Mass Murder and The Anatomy of Violent Crimes. Yet, I had never been able to actually study someone in person so that I could better understand how to try to help others before they commit violent crimes as well as identify potential ticking time bombs.

With the nature of my job currently revolving a lot around criminal psychology, I end up talking to some of the worse of human kind on a daily basis. On a regular day I talk to murderers, rapists, child molesters and have even on multiple occasions attempted to talk to a hit man for a Mexican drug cartel accused of over a dozen murders. So far he has refused to talk to me or anyone else for that matter.

Without going into too much detail because this case is still pending, I would like to share some of what I have learned from talking to a school shooter.

The first thing I noticed about this particular school shooter was his small, non-threatening stature. He looked like your typical high school student, except there was no light behind his eyes. When he looked and talked to me, there wasn’t any emotion there.

I won’t go into if he has a mental illness or not, but he says he grew up in a family that was full of mental health issues, namely untreated bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He says he was never physically or sexually abused, but witnessed a lot of family violence. As he says, his earliest memories are those of violence and conflict.

He had isolated himself at a young age. He didn’t feel attached or loved by his family. He had a lot of anger inside of him. He attempted to channel that anger by going into the military, but as a teenager he had gotten involuntarily committed to a mental hospital for a yet unknown reason, something that would later prevent him from joining the military.

Feeling even angrier, depressed and rejected because of that, he turned to Mixed Martial Arts as an outlet for his violent thoughts, but a knee injury caused him to have to stop training for awhile. It was during this time that his anger, depression and feelings of isolation grew and he started planning a mass shooting.

Planning included finding a way to legally buy a gun without a background check through a certain loop hole in the system. Planning included blending in with students of a high school he had dropped out of a couple of years ago, smuggling his weapon in using a musical instrument case and then going into the bathroom and putting on a tactical vest and gloves.

Before and during the incident, he reports he felt no anger or fear, just an adrenaline rush. He denies having any specific targets, any hate or anger towards any individual or group of people.

Although he says he feels remorseful, there are no emotions with his words. Yet he says the incident could have been a lot worse if it wasn’t for a girl’s screams that broke him out of his trance. He says it was her screams that made him feel horrible about what he was doing. Her screaming triggered memories of his childhood and made him and everyone around him, human again.

Some of the signs I’ve learned to look for from talking to him and studying other school shooters include:

  • Leakage- which is when people leave behind often unconscious clues, sometimes as a cry for help such as violent themes in their artwork or writing.
  • Low tolerance for frustration.
  • Poor coping skills.
  • Lack of resiliency.
  • Depression
  • Alienation
  • Dehumanizing others
  • Lack of empathy
  • Family appears to lack intimacy and closeness.
  • No limits or monitoring of TV and internet
  • Turbulent parent-child relationship

While it’s too late to have prevented this incident, I do hope that by continuing to learn from this individual and others, we’ll be able to prevent future tragedies. As long as I have access to him, I will continue to attempt to understand the mind of someone who would shoot up a school in Parkland, Florida, a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, a church in Charleston, South Carolina, a restaurant near Nashville, Tennessee, a music festival in Las Vegas or a nightclub in my hometown Orlando, Florida.

13 Reasons Why: A Brief Review By A Mental Health Professional

13-reasons-whyI recently finished watching the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why. I have to say that it is definitely worth watching, especially for those of us who are parents, work with teenagers or are in any helping profession.

Last night I was talking with one of my interns who said she recommended that her class watch 13 Reasons Why, but that her professor felt like the show idolizes and romanticizes suicide, so her request was rejected.  I think most people who believe this haven’t watched all 13 episodes of the show.

13 Reasons Why isn’t just about a teenage girl committing suicide, it’s about her life. It deals more with the way she lived and what she experienced than it does with her death. It’s  also about the lives that teenagers today live in with the age of social media, sexting and where embarrassing pictures and videos can be shared with a single tap of the share button.

The show deals with drinking, drugs, bullying and other uncomfortable issues such as rape and yes, suicide.

Some critics believe that 13 Reasons Why is a dangerous show that may actually encourage teenage suicide. They fear what is called a suicide contagious effect where publicized suicides have a tendency to increase suicides and suicide attempts among the general population.

While there has been shown a correlation in publicized celebrity suicides on an increase in suicides and suicide attempts in the general population, there isn’t any evidence of fictional portrayals of suicide in television or literature having an impact on actual suicides.

13 Reasons Why explores the lives of modern teenagers in a sort of reverse murder mystery where we already know who killed Hannah, the character who’s life the show is mostly focused on, but through the eyes of Clay, the other main character. We get to reconstruct the pieces to why this happened.

In the show, the parents appear mostly clueless about what’s going on in their kids lives. The bullying, the drugs, the alcohol, the suicidal tendencies. It highlights how so many parents today are so focused on their own careers, relationships and even images of the family being perfect that they can’t see the self destruction going on right under their noses.

I spent five years working in a high school as a mental health counselor, and many of the issues those kids were facing and the things they were doing, their parents had no clue about. Not just including the drugs, alcohol and sex, but also the anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Most felt like they couldn’t talk to their parents, that their parents didn’t care or that their parents were already too overworked and over stressed to be “bothered” with their problems.

In 13 Reasons Why, there were many opportunities and people in Hannah’s life who could have possibly intervened before she got to the point of taking her life, but none of them did.

Her parents were too busy trying to keep their business afloat, her friends were busy being teenagers and not necessarily friends and the teachers and counselor all seemed rather clueless or even uncomfortable when it came to dealing with topics such as sexual assault and suicide.

Much like in real life, there wasn’t one single reason Hannah decided to kill herself. There were at least 13 as the title hints.

Many times when someone commits suicide, even with a suicide note left behind, loved ones are at a loss trying to figure out why the person did it. They may focus on one single event or reason such as depression or a break up, but usually it is more complicated than that.

In the show, much like in real life, Hannah talks about the many reasons that have led her to the point of taking her life. It doesn’t appear as if Hannah had been struggling with depression until the end, but that she lived a rather melodramatic life that was complicated by many different issues.

The show never really talks about mental illness or depression. Realistically, most teenagers who become depressed and suicidal don’t necessarily realize that they are suffering from a mental illness so it’s realistic for the show to never really talk about it using those clinical words.

The suicidal mind doesn’t think that way. It doesn’t think that “I feel really horrible about my life, but I know it’s just the depression talking”.  Instead it makes the person feel hopeless, that things will never get better and that no one cares for them; even if they say it or show it, the suicidal mind will tell the person that they are just lying to spare their feelings.

Most people think that suicidal people are weak or just aren’t trying to cope. The suicidal mind is exhausted from trying to cope, of caring, of being hurt and in pain. It’s a dangerous place to be and it’s where suicidal people spend most of their time, in their mind.

In the end, Hannah felt as if she had no other choice, but to kill herself. She was never offered an alternative to the despair, agony and loneliness she felt other than to turn to drugs and alcohol like many of the other students in the series.

“We all let her down… She took her own life. That was her choice. You, me, everyone on these tapes, we all let her down. We didn’t let her know that she had another choice. Maybe we could’ve saved her life, maybe not.”, says Tony, one of the characters on the show and Clay’s friend.

The suicidal mind believes that it has a choice; to live or to die. Only the suicidal mind doesn’t fight fair because it is overly emotional, irrational, unrealistic and incredibly persuasive.

For those, who are afraid that the show will increase the likelihood of suicide or suicide attempts in teenagers, I suggest watching the entire season before coming to a conclusion.

The show deals with the uncomfortable issues facing teenagers in our society and in the least it’s gotten more people talking about those issues which in itself makes it a show worth watching and I’m glad it got renewed for a second season because I hope it can further this much needed discussion.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text “help me” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

 

Embracing Your Teens Sexual Orientation

130403133347-young-lesbian-couple-bed-horizontal-large-galleryWhen I worked as a high school mental health counselor, I worked with a lot of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens who struggled with telling their parents about their sexual orientation.

Many of them felt like they had to keep their sexual orientation a secret which of course caused them a lot of anxiety and even depression.  Most of all, they were terrified of not being accepted by their family.

Some of them were so scared that they would be disowned by their parents that they contemplated suicide. This was especially true when the youth came from a really religious family/background.

Luckily none of my students ever went this far, but I did help do grief counseling at a high school after a teen committed suicide due to the guilt and fear he felt about being gay and not being able to come out to his parents.

Some  of the teenagers I worked with turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with their feelings. while others turned to self-injurious behaviors like cutting themselves or acted out behaviorally (running away, skipping school, etc.).

Whenever I could, whenever a teen was ready to come out, I always encouraged them to bring their parents in for a family session. Many of them were too afraid to talk to their parents alone and wanted to do it in an environment where they felt safe.

Unfortunately this was something that rarely happened as many of the teens hadn’t yet worked up the courage to come out to their family.

However whenever it did happen, I always discussed the session beforehand with the teen so that there would be no surprises.

I wouldn’t tell the parents anything the teen didn’t want me to tell them, and I always encouraged the teen to lead the conversation while I would be there primarily as guidance and support.

Most of the parents who came to these family sessions already had some clue that their child wasn’t heterosexual. Many more were in denial. Luckily only a very few were visibly upset or angry.

What I wanted the parents to understand is that they didn’t make their child gay nor can they make them not gay.

This was especially true for male students. Sometimes a single mother would blame herself for not making her son “a man” or the father would blame himself for not being “tougher” on his son.

Parents do not make their children gay and “praying the gay away” or “reparative therapy” only works to temporarily change a child’s behavior at best, while risking permanent damage to  their self-esteem and mental health.

It doesn’t work.

Parents often feel angry, sad, and scared when they find out their child is gay. For many of them, they have to grieve over the loss of their ideal child. Maybe little Johnny is not going to marry Suzy and have 2.5 kids. Maybe Little Johnny will marry Billy and they will adopt 2.5 kids.

Many of them fear what their child will have to deal with from society on top of any other prejudices they may already be predisposed to (i.e, being Black and gay). It’s important that parents surround themselves with supportive people including support groups like Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

While it’s important for the parents to get support, it’s most important that the parents support their child.

The world can be tough enough for the LGBT community, but it’s even tougher for those whose parents reject them.

The teens I’ve worked with who fared the best mentally and emotionally were the teens whose parents supported them when they came out despite their own personal and religious views.

With the support of their parents it made it easier for them to deal with any other negativity they had to face such as depression and bullying. It also allowed them to blossom into the amazing young people they already were.

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, being homosexual was once listed as a mental illness. We now know that it is not. It is not something to be cured or prevented. It doesn’t go away if we ignore it.

Get over it.

Embrace it.

Childhood Bullying Can Have Lasting Psychological Affects

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It’s back to school time again and while parents are gearing up and are excited about the new school year, I thought it would be a good idea to remind everyone about childhood bullying.

Often bullying is seen as a normal part of growing up, almost as a harmless rite of passage, but we have all seen what bullying can do to some children.Think about the stories that have been in the news such as the boy who committed suicide. In 12 of 15 school shootings in the 1990s, the shooters had a history of being bullied.

These of course are extreme examples, but countless studies continue to show that childhood bullying can cause long-term psychological damage in some individuals.

In a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, a network publication of the American Medical Association, victims of bullying had an increased risk for anxiety disorders and suicide later in life.

The study showed that for some individuals, even when they grow up and are no longer being bullied, the psychological damage is still there and can affect the rest of their lives. That’s why it’s so important to address and stop childhood bullying early in order to prevent future problems.

Kids Who Are Bullied Often Have:

  • changes in sleep and eating patterns
  • loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • health complaints
  • decreased academic performance
  • higher risk of dropping out of school
  • a higher rate of family hardship
  • were 2.7 times more likely to suffer from generalized anxiety disorder
  • 3.1 times more likely to suffer from panic disorder
  • 4.6 times more likely to suffer from agoraphobia
  • had increased risk for depression

Bullying doesn’t just affect the victims either.

Kids Who Bullied Were:

  • 4.1 times more like to end up diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (which can lead to increased risk of incarceration and delinquent behavior)
  • Abuse alcohol and other drugs in adolescence and as adults
  • Get into fights
  • vandalize property
  • drop out of school
  • Engage in early sexual activity
  • Have criminal convictions as adults
  • Abuse romantic partners, spouses, or children as adults

What About Sibling Aggression?

While parents are usually alarmed to find out that their child is being bullied at school, they often dismiss the bullying that is going on right under their roof. Stopping bullying at home is just as important as stopping bullying at school.

While sibling aggression is often seen as harmless or even good in order to “toughen up” a child, a study done by the American Academy of Pediatric suggests that kids bullied by their siblings end up showing some of the same psychological damage as children bullied by their peers.

It is important that bullying to recognized and stopped early at school, at home and even online in social media when possible.

So as parents are getting excited about the school year, lets not forget to be on the lookout for or ignore childhood bullying. We have lost too many children  to the affects of bullying and are creating too many adults who are psychological damaged from what may have been seen as harmless behavior.

 

Parents Call Police When Discovering Their Teen Was Sexting

465702557When the parents of a 13-year-old 8th grader in Virginia discovered that their daughter was sending and receiving nude images of other teens on her tablet, they did what many other parents would do, they questioned their daughter and investigated farther. What they found concerned them enough that they did what many parents would not do, they contacted their local law enforcement agency.

What the parents found were sexual pictures of other teenagers (none of their daughter) and conversations going back and forth with other boys that they found were inappropriate for their daughters age.

“Everybody wanted to be her friend, because according to these people, she was cool now,” the teens mother said.

What also upset them were that older teens who they believe were 17 to 18 were requesting to have sex with their daughter. The parents contacted law enforcement to protect their daughter even if that meant she would also get in legal trouble for sexting.

“We did this now to protect her. For now and in the future, because this could get worse, she could be taken,” the teens mother said.

The teens involved in the sexting can face charges as severe as felonies for possessing child pornography.

While the mom acknowledges that many parents wouldn’t do what she did, she feels like she did what she had to do to protect her daughter from possible sexual abuse now and in the future.

A Couple of Quick facts about sexting

  • 40 percent of teenage girls do it as a joke, 34 percent do it to feel sexy, and 12 percent feel pressured to do it according to research.
  • Sending or receiving a sexually suggestive text or image to someone under the age of 18 is considered child pornography and can result in criminal charges.
  • Sexting is defined by the U.S. court system as “an act of sending sexually explicit materials through mobile phones.” The messages may be text, photo, or video.10. In the U.S., 8 states have enacted bills to protect minors from sexting, and an additional 14 states have proposed bills to legislation.

Someways parents can help prevent sexting is by having conversations with their teens, monitoring their electronic devices and using parent controls.

What would you do if you discovered your teen has been sexting? Would you be willing to contact the local authorities as this mother did?