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Is Poor Teen Mental Health Behind School Violence?

Two teen boys standing in front of each other about to fight  

Recently a 17-year-old in Walla Walla, Washington, was arrested after his mother alerted authorities about a concerning journal she found. The journal contained threats aimed at her and her boyfriend. There were also plans to attack the school the teen was attending. The potentially thwarted attack sheds light on the role of teen mental health in school violence and shootings.

Washington Teen Plans Attack on School

The Washington teen’s journal contained information and details about his plans to attack his school on April 20, 2020, which is the Columbine anniversary date. There was a high level of detail according to local officers, and they believe the teen planned to act alone based on his manifesto, which made note of firearms and explosives as well as particular locations he planned to attack. Police officers searched the teen’s home and didn’t find firearms or explosives, but they did find books that provided information on developing them.

The story emphasizes the role of parents and other authority figures to potentially help prevent school violence. For example, parents, educators, and other adults should learn more about normal teenage behavior vs. early warning signs of mental illness. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, because of the possible links between mental health and school violence, educators need to work with mental health agencies, local organizations, and law enforcement to ensure students who have mental health issues receive referrals to needed services.

See Something, Say Something

The “see something, say something” approach is important for parents and educators to understand. According to leaders of the school district in Walla Walla, the mom making a phone call could have saved lives. The public school superintendent also described school shootings as preventable. Along with considering the warning signs of a possible violent attack, it’s also essential to look for signs of mental illness in a teenager, since the two can be linked.

Teen Mental Health Statistics & School Violence

The American Counseling Association provided some school violence statistics related to teen mental health statistics. These include:

  • Around 17% of school attackers were diagnosed with a mental health disorder, but only one-third of attackers ever received a mental health evaluation.
  • 78% of school shooters had a history of either suicide ideation or suicide attempts before their attack.
  • 71% of attackers were bullying victims, and 10% receiving treatment for a diagnosed mental illness didn’t comply with prescribed psychiatric medications.

Correlation Between Teen Mental Health & School Violence

The National Association of School Psychologists issued guidance and information about preventing mass violence among students following the Parkland, Florida shooting. They described the need to address the mental health system and make mental health care more available, but they also named other possible causes of school violence, including too much access to firearms. They also went on to say that a diagnosable mental illness doesn’t predispose someone to violence, but instead school violence and homicidal behaviors are usually a combination of risk factors including biological and environmental factors.

The National Association of School Psychologists also urges caution against too heavily linking mental health issues in teens and school violence because it can increase stigma and reduce the number of teens willing to get help. Still, it is important to look at mental health as one of the potential causes of school violence, along with other factors.

Improving Access to Mental Health Treatment for Teens

What all of this means is that mental health services for teens need to be not only widely available but also de-stigmatized. Parents and educators should be willing to have open and honest discussions with teens about possible red flags they see and how teens can seek help. Many teens may want help but are either afraid to take the initial steps, or they aren’t sure how to begin, and that’s where parents and teachers can help guide them in the right direction.

If your teen is struggling with a co-occurring mental health disorder involving substance misuse, help is available. Contact Next Generation Village today to explore treatment options.

Sources:

Snell, Allison. “Teen behind bars after mom reports him for plotting school attack.” CBS 12 News, September 19, 2019. Accessed October 20, 2019.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “School Violence.” 2014. Accessed October 20, 2019.

Paolini, Allison. “School Shootings and Student Mental Health: Role of the School Counselor in Mitigating Violence.” VISTAS Online, 2015. Accessed October 20, 2019.

National Association of School Psychologists. “Prevention Mass Violence Requires Access to Mental Health Services and Reduced Inappropriate Access to Firearms.” February 15, 2018. Accessed October 20, 2019.

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