by William Van Ornum, Ph.D. on
The tragic violence at Fort Hood first kept a nation in suspense, then brought the nation to high levels of powerful emotions, and now has our country looking back to find answers. Why did this happen? What were telltale signs that might have been missed? Can we learn something from this mass shooting to prevent similar tragedies? Are there teaching strategies to promote a positive level of mental health that inoculates against violence?
Questions like these are addressed in the wonderful new book The Violent Person by Dr. Raymond B. Flannery Jr., published this fall by the American Mental Health Foundation Books and available on this Web site through Lantern as well as amazon.
Part of the beauty of Dr. Flannery’s approach is his focus on an overall philosophy of positive mental health, the kind of strength and resiliency that offer a strategy to prevent violence but also to increase happiness and mental health.
Three main approaches that Dr. Flannery writes about are CARING ATTACHMENTS, REASONABLE MASTERY, and MEANINGFUL PURPOSE. These can be striven for in the family. Schools are able not only to teach about these, but could offer many opportunities to practice them. Communities and corporations can encourage these affirming practices, and these action-oriented strategies fit comfortably into all the religions I know. So yes, we have powerful tools, and these are frequently unrecognized or underutilized. Chapter 2 of Dr. Flannery’s book can be used as a stand-alone handbook for everyone desiring greater security in our world. If you go to the upper left of our Web site on the Homepage, you can read this entire chapter.
Over the years mental-health professionals have discovered and practiced effective approaches to preventing violence. Structured interviews ask questions about violent or self-destructive thoughts and plans. Some of our diagnostic categories have a higher incidence of violent behaviors in them than others. Severe mental-health problems involving delusions and hallucinations can be identified, and there are effective medical approaches for lessening the suffering of these. Brain research is offering intriguing findings and new leads about the role of brain chemistry in violent behavior. We know of the strong link between childhood trauma or adult victimization and abuse and violent response, toward the perpetrator or innocent others.
We strongly suspect that the work of dedicated mental-health professionals has prevented many more tragedies that we will ever know about. I hope we never become like James Stewart in the famous It’s a Wonderful Life. His character despaired, but was given the great gift of seeing what might have happened were it not for the good things he had done in the world, actions he was totally unaware of himself. Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and all other therapists: you will never know of the tragedies you prevented.
The Fort Hood tragedies bring in two entirely new variables that mental-health professionals, and indeed perhaps the entire world, lack systematic knowledge of. How can strong religious feelings and ideologies interact with mental health problems? When we suspect that others may be involved with the person who has committed a violent act, how powerful is that extra impetus?
Of relevance here is a long-term study conducted by the United States Secret Service and published in a professional journal. They identified and followed individuals who have made threats toward the President, and their record in many decades in responding to these and preventing tragedy is exemplary. No doubt similar studies are ongoing regarding the kind of violence we have seen at Fort Hood.
Those of us who work with children and teens know that it is the youngsters themselves who often know when violence is brewing, as they have the best firsthand knowledge. We have yet to discover effective ways to tap the knowledge of those who often are closest to the premonitory signs of a violent act. “If you see something, say something” has proven to be much too simplistic.
I am not going to make specific remarks about the alleged perpetrator at Fort Hood. Mental-health professionals (of which, sadly, he is one) may be bound by ethics not to diagnose an individual whom they have not personally examined. So I will not.
It is very easy in any situation to be a Monday-morning quarterback. One of the facts about violence is that there is an exponentially greater number of persons who have had violent thoughts or who have had violent thoughts and made threats, and never acted on them. So I will not judge anyone involved in the pre-incident life of the alleged Fort Hood perpetrator.
If one believes in free will and free choice, as our American beliefs hold dearly, there is always going to be one unknown and unpredictable factor in violence. People make choices, and these can be beyond prediction. A court system based on justice and accountability (rather than excuses that some in the mental-health profession might opine) also offers prevention to violence and tragedy.
Coming full circle, and back to AMHF and its new book by Dr. Raymond Flannery, The Violent Person, I hope all of us, professionals and public alike, will learn Dr. Flannery’s proactive strategies for decreasing violence both at the societal and individual level. This is energy well spent, and we can all play an important part in making our society one that offers security and peace to its citizens.