This week marks the one year anniversary of the tragic Marysville Pilchuck High School shooting. As I reflect on the events of the previous year, gun violence comes up in multiple settings: The school shooting in my own state, the shooting of people gathering at a church in the South, and other incidents that occurred around the nation with less media coverage, but with equally devastating consequences for families and friends. As a provider in Snohomish County, I also think about many of my patients who were affected by this tragedy. My patients and their parents have described the feelings of helplessness, frustration, anger, and fear that something like this will happen again. This reflection leaves me with a sense of urgency that we as a community need to do more. We must answer questions to understand what brings a youth to the breaking point, how do we know if someone is having homicidal and/or suicidal thoughts and, most importantly, how can we prevent future tragedies?
Homicidal actions, such as school shootings, are rare. However, there have been increasing numbers of targeted school shootings over the past 50 years. There is very little scientific research on the topic, but what is available has indicated that universities and colleges are more likely to have random shootings, while high schools have more targeted shootings. We also know that that people who feel socially isolated are also more likely to have a path to violence that includes school shootings. Isolation can come in the form of bullying (both in person and through cyberbullying), lack of friends, and limited social involvement in extracurricular activities. The isolation may be on purpose (in the setting of bullying) or perceived by the individual.
According to a study in Behavioral Sciences & the Law, settings where young people feel anonymity and alienation may lead to environments associated with homicide. Researchers have also identified that students who commit mass murders don’t necessarily keep their intent secret. Planned assassinations, mass murders, catastrophic acts and intended violence are often ‘leaked’ through formats including letters, journals, blogs, emails, voicemails, and social media sites.
So here’s the important question: What role can family and friends play in prevention?
- If your teen comments or writes about homicidal or suicidal thoughts, either in a letter, journal, on social media or via text, don’t ignore it. Even if you didn’t have permission to read the journal, if they wrote it down or typed it, they are in need of help. Talk to them in person about what spurred those feelings. Ask them about their mood, social interactions and support systems (i.e. trusted peers, adults, professional mental health services, etc.).
- Ask questions. Simple questions I ask everyone include, “What gives you joy?” and “Who can you turn to no matter what?” If they reply nothing or no one, that is a sign of alienation and should illicit seeking help from a medical or mental health professional.
- Use your crisis line and tell someone. Friends can tell a trusted adult about concerns and parents can tell a mental health provider or even local law enforcement. Your local suicide crisis line is another resource than can provide appropriate mental health resources.
- If you suspect your teen is being bullied, talk to the school. Ask about your teen’s school policies on bullying and ensure that they are being enforced/practiced. If there isn’t an anti-bullying policy in place, advocate for one (or more).
- If a teen is expressing suicidal or homicidal intent, do not allow he or she to access a firearm, and seek help from a trusted adult or mental health professional.
- Practice safe gun storage in your home. Suicide and homicide are first and second among the top 3 killers of youth ages 15-24, and 82.8% of youth murdered in 2010 were killed by a firearm. Children and teens are at the greatest risk of unintentional deaths, injuries and suicides from guns in homes where the guns are kept unlocked. Storing firearms locked and unloaded in either a safe or lockbox, with ammunition locked separately, can reduce the risk of injuries and deaths involving children and teens.
Lock Box and Trigger Lock Giveaway Nov. 14
If interested, come learn more about the importance of safe gun storage and get a free lockbox or trigger lock, with hands-on training on proper use. Supplies are limited, and it’s first come, first served.
Date: Saturday, Nov. 14, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Location: Big 5 Sporting Goods, 12520 120th Ave. NE, Kirkland, WA