Forty-seven people were killed in mass murders in the US in less than 30 days this year. Everyone is looking for reasons and to make sense of these tragic events because we all cope better with catastrophic events if we can make some sense of them or find safety for ourselves and our loved ones. Otherwise, terrible events seem out of control, overwhelming, and terrifying. We must study and understand mass murders to prevent future ones from happening. Research shows that there is not one thing that pushes a person over the edge into violence and murder, but multiple risk factors and stressors and few or ineffective coping skills.
If someone feels she is chronically treated as inferior, she can believe she has no value, can be disconnected from people, and may be fueled by a growing rage against those who have treated her badly. This can happen at various developmental stages in life. In infancy, it leads to problems in attachment, which can be a factor in child development of communication, personal and interpersonal skills. Attachment problems are associated with many forms of later violence and murder. Children can be traumatized in early childhood by abuse and neglect and exposure to domestic or community violence. Adolescents can have an exaggerated striving for independence when rejected by peers, bullied, failing in school, and or rejected by family. In adulthood, someone who is unsuccessful in moving toward a partner relationship, has conflicted relationships, is unsuccessful at work or loses his or her job, can feel he is inferior to others. This rejection (called recognition denial) can be associated with anger, rage, and lack of strong attachment bonds to family, school, work, or community. It has been associated with violence and murder in a study by Timothy Brezina (2008).
What happens if someone is rejected as a child by an abusive family and rejected by peers because of bullying or because he is different and has difficulty maintaining employment as an adult? If he feels that he is being treated as inferior, recognition denial and rage can take place. Some examples readily come to mind: Mass Murderers, Seng-Hui Cho, the Unibomber, the Columbine shooters, and Golden and Andrews. More recently, it is alleged that Jiverly Wong killed 14 in NY. It is reported that he had been fired from his job, was depressed, and felt people made fun of him because he did not speak English well. Seng-Hui Cho had trouble communicating, had obvious mental health problems from an early age, and thought people made fun of him. He killed 32 and wounded 25 at Virginia Tech. James Harrison allegedly murdered his 5 children and then himself following a fight with his wife, in which she left him. Child Protective services had been called several times to this home due to the father’s yelling and screaming at the children. It appears that all of these mass murderers felt they were treated as inferior, had major stressors and ineffective coping skills. Additionally, there were signs of trouble long before these terrible events took place.
Violence occurs when risk factors are many, resiliency factors are few and/or stressors exceed one’s ability to cope. There are many combinations of risk and resiliency factors, as well as stressors and coping skills (or lack thereof) that can lead to violence. In these difficult economic times, losing a job is a huge stressor for most. For those with multiple stressors whose coping is compromised, it can be overwhelming. If violence was modeled by the person’s childhood caregivers as a way to solve problems and control others, the results can be horrific. Every mounting stressor pushes the person to the tipping point. Are they to be excused? Is there no accountability? Not at all, we have a criminal justice system for that. But while they are under the direction of the Court, multiple resources are needed to keep such violence from happening again. Unless something changes within the person, it is likely that violence will happen again.
Good coping skills are essential to avoiding using violence as a way to deal with problems. Children who experience trauma sometimes have delays in the development of coping skills. So they may operate with less successful coping. Stressors can more easily exceed their ability to cope. If not altered, this lack of appropriate coping can last into adulthood. Someone can step in to increase the coping skills and/or decrease stress and if it is successful, a child can veer from the path of violent rage against a world that has seemingly rejected him. It is possible that the help and support to build skills and cope with stressors can come anywhere in the lifespan. However, it is also more likely that it is easier to build necessary skills in children. This will cause their later life experiences to be more positive and confidence building. One success builds upon another.
So what needs to be done? Where ever or whenever, it is apparent that a child, teen, or adult’s stressors routinely exceed their ability to cope, especially in cases of child abuse, neglect and domestic violence, there need to be services to resolve old trauma, increase feelings of competence and well-being, and teach appropriate coping skills. Whether someone with a history of violence is in jail or the community, these skills need to be taught to prevent future violence.
These are skills that should have been learned during the 18 years of childhood and adolescence. A six week course in anger management will not make up for those lost years of skill building. It may take several years for adults to heal from trauma and learn good interpersonal and problem solving coping skills. It is this writer’s opinion that assessment for the need for long term interventions to build skills should be legally mandated for any person convicted of any form of violence or committed to a mental health facility as a danger to self or others. This can be done in jail or the community, but must be done. It is also important that youth who commit violence have a similar assessment for dangerousness to the community and treatment needs. The cycle of violence often goes from generation to generation, while we build more prisons and have one of the highest violence rates in the industrialized world. We can reverse the trend and interrupt the cycle of violence and murder.