It feels tremendously frustrating to see repeated school massacres of innocent children and teachers, followed by a stereotypical blame game in the media that does no good whatsoever. Then the whole routine is repeated over and over again.
School Shooters Suffer from Paranoid Personality Disorder
To make it worse, the basic personality profile of school shooters has been known to practicing psychiatrists and clinical psychologists for about a century. Statistically they are easy to describe, because they follow the well-known pattern of paranoid personality disorder, which emerges in late adolescence or early adulthood (high school to college) in a stereotypical fashion. There are not many behavioral disorders that are stereotyped, because human beings have infinite variety. But paranoid personality disorder is the big exception.
The New York Daily News has an article called “Minnesota teen made bombs, stockpiled guns in prep for school massacre: police.”
This is very good news about very bad news, because it seems that in Minnesota, at least, police agencies are catching on to the long-known psychiatric wisdom that vulnerable adolescent boys with major paranoid personality features may be walking time bombs. Early, compassionate identification of teenagers at risk, along with sensitive treatment of these young men in the most turbulent period of their lives is essential from a public health perspective.
Explaining ‘Paranoid’ as a Cause for School Shooting
The word “paranoid” is so much abused these days that it’s become almost useless. But in clinical psychology and psychiatry it has long been understood to involve some of these features:
1. Intense anxiety about the way we are perceived by others. Now all teenagers go through this, and probably all adults. It’s a matter about how intense it becomes, and in adolescence it is entangled with sexual selection, feelings of rejection and anger, loneliness and sadness. Those feelings are normal, but some kids, mostly young men, seem to have some mix of inherited and environmental vulnerability.
2. Excessive focus on one’s personal importance. It has long been believed that we compensate for negative feelings about ourselves with grandiose fantasies. This is perfectly normal too, because all human beings have dreams of how they want to be and how they want to be seen by significant others. English teachers know all about that, because as kids and teenagers we express those dreams in essays, in talking with our friends, and sometimes by acting out.
3. The technical term “paranoia” means “excessive suspicion.” It does not mean being weird and mad, because all human beings need to be careful that they are not taken advantage of. That is healthy and normal. People who are too gullible do get victimized sometimes. All of us are a little suspicious about other people, until we learn to trust them.
Guns Availability help School Shootings to Happen!
The big point is the excessive part, and the key is how far it departs from healthy skepticism about other people (is that cute girl or boy flirting with me just to fool me?). When suspiciousness about others goes way out of bounds, along with fantasies of one’s secret personal importance to the world, and if it becomes an obsession, if it gets mixed up with guns and actual plans to harm others (or oneself), any English teacher or school counselor should be aware that here is a young person in possible trouble.
It can’t be said often enough how normal this is. Every kid goes through this, and our teenage years are the must turbulent years of our lives. Apparently the Minnesota cops, or the school system, were smart enough to spot the very small percentage of kids to worry about, and the huge percentage of kids who are just going through a phase. Teenagers and young adults have to figure out who they are, what self-image is real and what isn’t, what kind of social presentation to the world is going to work, and what isn’t. That’s the developmental task of adolescence.
Nobody knows scientifically exactly what the vulnerability factors are, but we don’t need to know all the answers. All we need to do as parents, teachers, and friends, is to be aware of the really obvious signs. Then we have to understand the crucial importance to getting some advice from professionals. There are entire professions of counselors, psychologists, and the like, who can bring wisdom and experience to bear. The traditional joke in clinical psychology is that a bar tender who likes people is a better source of wisdom than the most highly qualified MD or PhD. A good friend can perform wonders. Isolation is not good for people.
- School shooters behave in very stereotypical ways. In most cases the warnings signs are obvious to parents, teachers and friends.
- Our national habit of watching these horrible things happen and then engaging in a media blame game is itself dysfunctional. It doesn’t solve anything, and it may inspire other troubled kids to become famous by hurting others so badly that the media will make them a national story. Remember, under all the anger and suspicion, there is a soul crying for recognition.
- We must stop being dysfunctional as a society when it comes to these predictable events.
- Part of the answer is to become more sensitive to the signs of excessive suspiciousness, intense rage and anger, self-isolation, clearly expressed fantasies of violence, intense preoccupation with the same images over and over again, overt preparations and planning for violence. The most troubled kids probably signal “cries for help” a lot of the time, if only their parents, friends, and teachers could see them. Statistically they tend to be lonely boys in late adolescence or early adulthood.
- Never, never jump to conclusions without consulting a professional or a person of real wisdom.
- About 2-4% of the general population is destined to develop serious mind/brain disorders at some time, often during turbulent periods of our lives. They need compassionate help.
For the first time in history we have whole professions dedicated to giving help, finding treatments, and giving hope. The revolution in mind-brain sciences today should raise our hopes that better and better treatments are on the way. A generation ago there were no medications for severe depression, excessive worry, and all the problems human beings have had for ages. Today there is a great deal of hope.
- Parents, teachers and friends should never have to worry about sharing their concerns with responsible adults. Experienced professionals already know this story. (Experienced bartenders do, too!). A troubled person must never, never be accused or scapegoated or even talked about in a gossipy way. The only way is to be intelligent and compassionate.
- It’s high time for our society to start being sensible about this psychological epidemic. Stop blaming, and start preventing trouble before it starts.
This work by Bernard J Baars and the Society for Mind Brain Sciences is licensed under