Human Pressure Cookers
If Anguish Turns Violent
Do You Know What to Do?
In 2005, annual state-wide testing in Texas included
an essay section. Of the one million essays submitted, nearly 700 youngsters wrote about their own abuse, neglect or rape (USA Today, March 28, 2005). Around the same time, The New York Times suggested that a recent Minnesota school shooting may have occurred because "anguish turned homicidal." In the next sentence, they wrote: "Teachers are ill-prepared to identify and address the normal emotional difficulties of their students, much less the aberrational ones." Further, they correctly observe that "school counselors, who are better suited for the task, are severely outnumbered."
Those words from 2005 carry even more weight 6 years later as counselors are often among the first staff jettisoned in the ubiquitous layoffs of our current difficult economic times.
For more than two decades, I have criss-crossed North America training teachers, counselors, principals and other youth workers to better understand and assist troubled youth and children. I'm Ruth Herman Wells, M.S., Director of Youth Change. For all those years, I have been saying over and over, in school after school, in city after city, that anguish can easily become rage.
However, the media continues to simplistically lump together all students who engage in serious school violence such as school shootings, and repeatedly names bullying as the sole cause of the extreme behavior. That over-simplified sound bite has made my job much harder because bullying is often not the sole– or even primary– contributing force that spurred tragedy.
The central force was the developing rage and on-going depression. The
simplistic focus on bullying means that quiet anguish that doesn't involve bullying, can more easily pass unnoticed by adults and any opportunity for prevention is lost. It is very discouraging that in my workshops, most teachers, principals, counselors, and other youth workers do cite bullying as the main cause of school shootings. In the 2005 Minnesota case, the young shooter was a pressure cooker. The signs of depression, alienation and frustration were there to see; and bullying may not have been a factor at all.
It is time for youth professionals to refine how they view school shooters. By subscribing to media characterizations that over-emphasize bullying, youth workers are more likely to miss the most important clues: depression, anguish and frustration. These powerhouse emotions can easily occur without any bullying.
If you want to become better prepared to notice and understand youngsters who are human pressure cookers, there is only one option. If your background does not include mental health basics, now is the time to upgrade your skills. Concern about a potential tragedy at your site is not the sole reason that non-mental health workers must finally broaden their expertise. The real reason that these youth professionals must become more skilled in basic mental health methods is that for every sad child who does pick up a gun, there are hundreds more who struggle and suffer more quietly. We now know that by 2005 there were at least 700 of them in Texas.
Children in Oregon have also confessed distress in that state's essay exam. Some of those sad stories lacked proper punctuation, or had sub-standard sentence structure, and ultimately received failing grades. A child tells of beatings or a recent rape, or writes of homelessness, or a lost parent. Not only will the cry for help fail to be answered, the cry for help itself is graded as failing.
In 2005 in Texas, a student died the day before the state-wide exam was scheduled. The school staff asked to delay the exam to allow the children time to grieve. The students were nonetheless required to take the test, seated next to the empty desk of their newly dead friend and classmate.
High stakes testing mania has become the center of the education universe. It consumes countless dollars, aggressively devours teachers' time, and diminishes the importance of every other educational activity. If a teacher wants to keep her job, she must produce the right testing numbers. With eyes firmly focused on testing, teachers are left precious little time to even think, never mind notice children's anguish.
Testing is most certainly not the cause of this country's problems with extreme school violence, but testing has most certainly contributed to the problem. Flunking cry for help essays, compelling testing even hours after death, and our relentless pursuit of magic numbers are just a few of the ways that we sacrifice children's humanity to the gods of testing.
If we put a mere 10% of the effort we devote to testing mania, into noticing and helping deeply troubled children, perhaps we could stop some of the shootings before they occur. Further, since you can't push profoundly distressed children to perform well on tests anyway, perhaps by noticing and attending to the distress, many sad children would accomplish more academically.
How Prepared is Your School to Notice and Help
How do you know if your team is properly noticing and helping distressed students? Further below is a quick litmus test to determine if your team has a solid, basic mental health knowledge base, plus the inclination and willingness to notice deeply depressed youngsters who might one day explode; brief answers are provided as applicable:
1. Can your staff name the 3 students at highest risk of engaging in
Answer: Conduct disorders; thought disorders; extreme agitated,
2. Conventional behavior management methods don't work with the
three students identified in Question #1. Does your staff know how they must intervene differently with each of those three types of students?
3. Can your staff name the symptoms of major, clinical depression, and the three methods that work best to prevent explosive rage?
Answer: There are a vast array of symptoms that can signal depression. While only mental health professionals can diagnose,
all youth workers can watch for sad moods especially without
apparent cause, diminished enthusiasm, anxiety, hopelessness,
feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, problems with concentration, changes in sleep, changes in weight, changes in
appetite, and suicidal gesturing or comments. These are a few
of the most common signs. The best methods to address
depression, especially with the help of your school counselor:
exercise, talking and carefully monitored anti-depressants.
4. Can your staff name the most important methods to use– and not
use– with conduct disordered students?
Answer: The single most important method is to keep the costs
of misbehavior high, and the benefits low. For diagnosed
conduct disorders, all conventional, relationship-based
approaches should be discontinued since they often make the
problems worse while failing to produce improvement. If you
have used conventional methods to rein in conduct disordered
students, you may have ended up feeling that "nothing works"
to control their misbehavior.
5. Is there a mechanism at your site or within your community to
ensure that all children are noticed by their teacher, mentor or other
adult so that warning signs (like violent website postings, essays
expressing distress, threatening remarks, alienation, and desperation)
are not missed?
6. Candidly speaking, what would your staff say is the highest priority at your site?
Answer: Academic achievement and high testing scores really
shouldn't be the top answer in our current violent times. The top answer offered by your team should be site safety, or else safety is not the priority that it must be in our current violent times. Educational goals will quickly assume lower status if your team ever loses students or staff in a shooting or other tragedy. School safety should be the one thing that is more important than anything else that occurs within the walls of your school. Without school safety, nothing else matters.