Melissa O’Sullivan’s youngest son’s problems started in pre-school. The other kids picked on him, and by elementary school he was getting into fights. At the beginning of each academic year, O’Sullivan would get acquainted with the principal, knowing that calls about behavior would be a regular occurrence.
Then, when he was seven, he got kicked out of an after-school program for drawing a picture of a gun.
“He would make little Lego guns, and everything was guns,” O’Sullivan said. “A conversation or a meeting should’ve been held about that. But they just wanted to get rid of him, and they did.”
She began to worry about her son’s safety, and that of his classmates. She got him into counseling, and said he’s getting better at self control. Today, he’s 16 and attends a special school for boys with behavioral challenges. But she knows there are many more children whose issues go unchecked.
“Everybody has a limit where they just explode,” she said.
A string of mass shootings in recent months — most committed by young men — have many wondering who is capable of extreme violence, and how loved ones can intervene before it’s too late.
In April, 25-year-old Alek Minassian allegedly killed 10 people in a rental van in Toronto. Just before the incident he praised Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who opened fire near the UC Santa Barbara four years ago. Both were part of the online "incel" movement, a group of young men who say they’re involuntarily celibate and seek to punish women for denying them sex.
In Florida, classmates described Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old accused of killing 17 at a Florida high school in February, as troubled and weapon-obsessed.
But while mass killers are socially and emotionally disturbed, experts say they don’t tend to be mentally ill. Research from Columbia University shows that only about one in five mass murderers are psychotic or delusional. Another major report found that just 4 percent of all violence in the U.S. is attributable to mental health.
Amy Barnhorst, a psychiatrist with UC Davis, said medication isn’t the answer for people who are “full of hatred and bitterness and resentment” or who have “violent, vengeful fantasies against people they think wronged them.”
And even if someone has threatened violence, Barnhorst said providers can’t legally place them on a “5150” — an involuntary psychiatric hold — unless they screen for delusion, dysfunction, or some other marker of serious disease.
“The way the system is set up does not make it a good resource for them and we’re not going to be able to fix them,” she said. “We’re not even going to be a pathway to separate them from their guns”
If mental illness isn’t the cause, what is? Some experts trace violent impulses to childhood bullying, broken homes, abusive or absent father figures and loneliness. Many have tied mass killings to “toxic masculinity” — the idea that a man must always be in power.
Daniel Thomas runs a violence prevention class for male abusers who’ve been referred by the court system. He said most of the guys he works with are harboring some sort of injustice against a partner, an employer, or a system they think let them down. Violence is their way of getting the upper hand.
“It gives them a sense of superiority, a sense that they’ve won, or that they’ve gotten control of the situation,” he said.
He helps clients process underlying emotions, such as sadness and fear, and use anger in a healthy way.
At Mental Health America of Northern California’s Sacramento office, coordinator Sandena Bader runs an anger management program for teens. She said parents who are worried about violent children, regardless of gender, should seek help if the anger seems too frequent or disruptive, or if it becomes physical.
“Could my child go to school and shoot up the school? Deep down we don’t think it could really happen, but there’s always that ‘could it?’” she said. “So that’s when we get them referred out to programs.”
Anyone can look out for this behavior — at home, at work, or at school. Cosumnes River College created a system for this in direct response to mass shootings. Students who spot a troubled classmate can contact the campus “threat assessment team” — a group of counselors, teachers, and law enforcement officers trained to intervene.
Jason Newman, a history professor and team member, said he’s seen a clear increase in troubled students during his 17 years on campus.
“We encounter these young people as kind of a first line of defense as a college,” he said. “And if left unchecked, these students could transfer to other institutions, might go to another campus, or might even act out in public. So we really do see ourselves as trying to address a community issue.”
Barnhorst at UC Davis said threat assessment teams are a good strategy that more schools should employ. But at the end of the day, potential shooters are tough to pick out from the crowd.
“Social withdrawal, anger problems, trouble in school, history of being bullied or bullying, fascination with military style weapons, a couple camo jackets in the closet — that’s a lot of people,” she said. “And I don’t think there’s any red flags, besides when they actually start to stockpile weapons.”
She said sometimes more drastic action is needed. California’s gun violence restraining order allows families to request the removal of a person’s guns — and block them from buying firearms — if they pose an immediate threat to themselves or others. It is not based on a mental illness diagnosis.
“You can have all that resentment and bitterness and anger, but if you don’t have a weapon, you’re not gonna be a school shooter,” she said.
A new bill proposed at the Capitol could allow employers, co-workers, high school and college staff and mental health workers to request the restraining order, as well.
Resources For Troubled Individuals And Their Families
- Sacramento Advocates for Family Empowerment, teen anger management class
- Call Sandena Bader at NorCal Mental Health America, 916.855.5427
- ManAlive Sacramento, adult anger management sessions
- Call Daniel Thomas, (877) 662-8465 ext. 5
- Sacramento Child and Family Institute, mental health services
- Call the referral line, 916.921.0828
- California Youth Crisis Line (call or text): 1-800-843-5200
Crisis Intervention: What You Can Do
- Request to see the student in private or after class. This may help minimize embarrassment and defensiveness.
- Briefly acknowledge your observations of him/her (specific to behaviors and/or performance): express your concerns directly and honestly.
- Listen carefully to what the student may be troubled about without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing.
- Clarify the student's problem or concern and acknowledge your concerns or uneasiness.
- Unusual and inappropriate behaviors should not be ignored. Comment directly on what you have observed.
- Involve yourself in the process as it impacts your immediate work area or situation. At times, in an attempt to reach out or help a troubled student, you may become more involved than time or skill permits.