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My View: Mental health services needed at schools

“If we do not make changes, then our past will determine our future, and we will continue to have school shootings.”

This statement was a part of my first testimony before Congress in March 1999, shortly before the massacre at Columbine High School (Colo.). My testimony focused on the need for increased mental health services for students in our schools.

I’ve been personally involved in providing direct on-site services in the aftermath of 13 school shootings, have consulted with school personnel after many other shootings, and have stayed abreast of the latest research and literature.

I’m very aware of the societal changes being called for by parents who lost their children in these tragedies. They’re calling for more religion, better parenting, controlling guns, reducing media violence, and increasing mental health services for our youth.

There’ve been few changes and little agreement about what needs to be done.

What do we know about school shooters other than they are exclusively male? Are they ordinary kids? A school shooting took place at Chardon High School (Ohio) and, much to my dismay, USA Today (March 2, 2012) published a headline about this tragic event describing the teenage shooter with misleading words: “He was an average 17-year-old kid.” This provides the perception that any child can potentially become a school shooter.

Many school shooters who plan mass murder do not plan to survive, and suicide is their primary goal. The most common motivations of the shooters are fame and revenge. Our media provides them fame through extensive coverage. Psychological theorist Peter Langman identified three types of school shooters: psychotic, psychopathic and traumatized.

• Psychotic school shooters don’t have a good basis of reality; this is often a consequence of schizophrenia. The school shooter at Heath High School (Paducah, Ky.) was reported to be hearing voices and thought monsters were living in his home.

• Psychopathic school shooters exhibit a lack of conscience, remorse and little empathy for others. They feel a sense of superiority. One Columbine shooter left behind evidence where he referred to himself as god-like and having the right to kill others.

• Traumatized school shooters often have experienced significant traumatic events, such as: abuse, invalidating home environment, repeated bullying victimization, and loss of a parent, all of which increases vulnerability to depression and suicide. The shooter at Red Lake High School (Minn.) had an extensive history that fits this category.

A 2002 Secret Service report found that of the 41 school shooters studied, many had histories of suicidal ideations and attempts, and suffered from depression. There are clear indications that school shooters are not ordinary kids, but instead have severe mental health problems.

I worked full time in schools for 26 years and the reality is that very few school counselors do counseling or provide any type of mental health services to students. Most of their time is spent scheduling, testing or in clerical work. I was previously the president of the National Association of School Psychologists and know very well that most of their time is spent on special education assessments and learning outcomes for students.

Would anyone argue that the shooters were ordinary kids who did not need mental health treatment? Where would be the most efficient place to provide needed services to mentally ill youth? The answer is clear — at school. Let’s prioritize mental health treatment for students and not let our past determine our future.

Scott Poland is a professor at Nova Southern University, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and a nationally recognized expert on school crisis, youth violence, suicide intervention, self-injury, school safety, threat assessment, parenting and the delivery of psychological services in schools.