School shootings prompt mental illness discussions

May 23, 2018 GMT

Columbine, Sandy Hook, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and now, Santa, Fe, Texas: mass shootings of juveniles at schools that left 70 students and teachers dead. Those are the names that stick out because they claimed large numbers of victims.

But the reality is, there have been many school shootings in the time between Columbine in 1999 and Santa Fe, Texas, Friday. Many of those shootings involve fewer deaths -- some not even one -- and fewer injuries than the ones that have attracted intense media attention. Many of those happened at colleges and universities.

But the ones with the most bloodshed happened at high schools and one elementary school --Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut.

The nation seems divided on how to stop these mass shootings. There are suggestions that range from gun bans to arming more teachers. There are calls for increased school security and metal detectors. After Friday, the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, suggested redesigning schools to cut down the number of ways to exit and enter.

One thing seems to cut across all points of view -- a need to find a way to help those with mental illnesses. It may be ironic, then, that this incident happened during May, nationally observed as Mental Health Awareness Month.

While it is difficult to know what it is that drives these individuals, there seem to be some common elements.

In these mass school shootings, the gunmen have all been young men in their late teens or early 20s. They all have had a connection to the school they attacked. Mental health issues, whether severe or not, are one of the stressors usually cited in the investigation that follows these events.

It might be expected that these incidents only happen in big cities where people are less connected socially and crime is a bigger problem. But these mass shootings have happened in smaller settings than, for example, New York or Los Angeles.

Littleton, Colorado, where Dylan Klebod and Eric Harris killed 15 and themselves, had a population of 46,333 in 2016. It is about the same size as Fond du Lac, with its population of 43,021 in 2010.

Newton, Connecticut, where Adam Lanza killed 28 people and himself, had a population of 27,560 in 2010. Superior is slightly smaller with a population of 27,224 in 2010.

Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 lost their lives Friday had a population of 12,222 in 2010. That is similar in size to Plover which had a population of 12,123 in 2010.

And Parkland, Florida, home of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 students and staff lost their lives in February, had a population of 23,962 in 2010. The city in Wisconsin that is of similar size -- Watertown, with a 2010 population of 23,861.

Paige Curry, a student at Santa Fe, told CBS News she wasn’t surprised.

“It’s been happening everywhere,” she said. “I felt -- I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was gonna happen here, too. So I don’t know. I wasn’t surprised, I was just scared.”

Roger Klein a clinical psychologist in Watertown, was also a school psychologist in the Watertown district from 1974-2004. He is the cofounder of Family Resource Associates with offices in Watertown and Jefferson.

When asked, he said he doesn’t know why these school shootings happen in smaller communities, but speculated bigger cities have more resources for students and parents to access. Smaller cities don’t always have the kinds of mental health workers that would provide access to services troubled students and their parents need.

Initially, news reports from Santa Fe said there were no “red flags” like there had been with the Parkland shooter. Later reports started to mention possible signs that this student was troubled.

Klein said it isn’t necessarily unusual for a troubled student to show no signs of acting out in some way.

“It’s not necessarily unusual,” he said. “There are cases of kids being really depressed but not showing any signs of it.”

However, Klein said, “for the most part, most kids are showing signs of difficulty in some way.”

Among the signs schools are alert to are changes in a student’s behavior or big changes in grades.

“Often times, just grades” can be a sign, Klein said. “Maybe a kid who was doing well is no longer doing well. And there doesn’t seem to be an explanation to why they aren’t doing well.”

But, “There’s always a reason behind it,” he said. “Teachers are usually pretty sensitive to those kind of things.”

In most schools, the teacher would alert a counselor or social worker to the changes in the student.

“The problem is, a lot of those positions have been eliminated due to budget cuts,” Klein said.

With budget cuts and fewer mental health workers, schools may make referrals to outside services.

“Many, many schools -- the majority of schools -- are aware of kids that are hurting and make a referral,” Klein said.

But for families that are already stressed, it can be difficult to deal with the situation. Problems of money and lack of insurance coverage tax the families response. “Many parents are having so many problems of their own they don’t have the wherewithal of doing that,″ Klein said.

Despite the problems in the lives of young people, Klein is quick to point out that violence in a school setting and in society is not an epidemic.

According to the Pew Research Center, the gun homicide rate is down 49 percent since its peak in 1993.

Many people think just the opposite. Klein blames the media for sensationalizing these incidents

“So much media attention is given to these occurrences I worry about a kind of copy-cat situation,” Klein said. “I think it’s a huge problem with the media 24/7 replaying it on and on.”