Teachers, principals and counselors: As most of you are aware, some of the recent school shootings were apparently committed by students who were not known for their acting- out behaviors, but instead for their relatively quiet withdrawal and depression. We have gotten quite a few calls asking for explanations. Youth professionals are often more accustomed to preventing and addressing violence from acting-out youth, and may feel less prepared to prevent or address violence from other types of youth.
Here are some of the questions we have been receiving at our office and in our workshop:
Question: Why are some depressed, withdrawn kids becoming suddenly violent?
Answer: Perhaps some of these kids are like pressure cookers that build up so much steam that they literally explode. Many professionals are used to seeing serious youth depression that includes withdrawal, lethargy, reduced verbiage, reduced activity levels, self-harm and/or threats of self-harm, and comments reflecting hopelessness and despair. But, some depressed youngsters may explode out of that "acting-in" into serious acting-out.
Question: Our staff has had a lot of training on preventing and managing violence by acting- out students such as conduct disorders. Is there much difference working with students who normally act in?
Answer: Yes, it is almost a completely different process. Perhaps the two most compelling difference are these: First, there may be fewer overt cues to help you spot the acting-in student before the violence occurs. Second, the way you work with the two sets of students should be completely different. So, no, you can't just extrapolate your training on conduct disordered youth, for example, to depressed students.
Question: How does my school or agency know if we are prepared as best as possible to avoid serious violence from acting-in students?
Answer: Your staff should be able to identify at least three types of students who may be at highest risk of extreme violence, and how they must work differently with each type. There is no substitute for gaining a more sophisticated understanding of your different populations and also learning which tools to use with each type of youth.
Question: Some states are now considering laws that will mandate how schools discipline bullies. Will that be a big help?
Answer: Not necessarily. Your depressed student doesn't always blow up over one single problem like being harassed by peers. A better solution might be to educate youth professionals to understand how the peer harassment affects the vulnerable youngster, but also teach all about that student, not just this one element. It is unlikely that there is a quick and simple fix to the serious and complex emotional problems that developed over the entire child's lifetime. The better solution would be to ensure that all youth professionals have a complete and sophisticated understanding of their different types of kids. Professional development classes like ours' are designed to efficiently do that. There may not be any easy shortcuts or bypasses to updating staff skills.
Question: So stopping bullying is not the whole answer to stopping serious violence by acting- in students?
Answer: That is correct. While it is a definite help, remember that it doesn't always take a "big thing" to set these kids off. Sometimes, the triggering event can be as simple as "that girl didn't look at me." Unfortunately, "the straw that broke the camel's back" phenomenon can often occur.
Question: Can you list at least a few key do's and don't's on preventing violence with depressed youth?
Answer: This list is absolutely no substitute for a thorough understanding.
Don't add to their burdens; Don't permit them to face unnecessary problems like endless peer harassment; Don't ignore the often quiet signs of major depression (many are noted above); Don't pressure them; Don't forget about them-- the quiet ones so often go unnoticed.
Do involve them in talking out problems to avoid building up problems; Do involve them in exercise; Do have them evaluated for anti-depressant medication; Do teach them coping and social skills (including peer interaction skills); Do build a strong bond; and, in the words of one depressed youth, Do "make it safe, make it okay."
Want more information on depressed youth and violence? This isn't a topic that is widely covered-- especially if you are seeking practical tools, not just theory. The fastest, most thorough solution we know about is our Breakthrough Strategies Workshop (live or on tape). It is a very thorough resource that puts you in the depressed child's world, and gives you specific do's and don't's. It would hopefully reduce the "guess work" and guide you through your interactions with this student. Visit http://www.youthchg.com/live.html for more info.