School Shootings, Guns, and Child Mental Illness

School Shootings, Guns, and Child Mental Illness

Up until recently, news of devastating school shootings swerved to public fights about gun control.  I had hoped past shootings would stimulate discussion of mental health treatment (see Guns and Mental Illness: the Debate from a Parent’s Perspective,” written 5 years ago in 2013). After this recent shooting in Florida, it now is.  But be careful what you wish for.  Mental illness is on the radar, but the subject swerved off into mental illness as a significant lethal threat to the public.  (I think this is compounded by a morbid fascination with psychopaths. The lurid TV series “Criminal Minds” plays to this–the entire plot line equates mental illness with psychopathy, torture, and murder.)  Damn it.

Look at the raw numbers below.  Shouldn’t the other deaths caused by children’s mental illness be on the table too?

Deaths by school shootings in elementary, middle, and high schools in the U.S.:

2000-2018 – Deaths by school shootings:  110 children*

2000-2018 – Foiled attempts at school shootings:  19 schools*

Child deaths by suicide in the U.S.:

2014-2015 – Between the ages 10-24:  17,304**

2013 – Suicide by firearm between the ages 10-19:  876***

*(Wikipedia, based on contemporaneous news reports)
**National Institute for Mental Health (latest available numerical data)
***Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (latest available numerical data)

Effective advocacy for preventing suicide (via mental health treatment) requires effective ‘marketing.’

Parkland, Florida, image from

I wonder about the marketing aspect–the campaign that tells a gripping story that motivates others to act.  Let’s compare:  School shootings are public tragedies, with images of ambulances filmed from helicopters, and wrenching quotes from the anguished.  But suicides happen alone; they are private self-inflicted tragedies.  No helicopters, no candlelight vigils.  People keep their distance.  Money doesn’t pour in to support the victim’s family or increase the availability and use of treatment.  And then there is this awful irony:  if vulnerable children hear the news of a peer’s suicide, it risks suicide contagion.

Maybe the activism of the student survivors in Florida are symbolically opening a door.

Dublin, Ireland, in 2014,

Maybe there’s a way if victim’s families and friends are willing to tell their anguished stories, too.  I don’t know how it feels to be you–my child made suicide attempts but didn’t succeed (insert deep sigh of gratitude here).  How do you feel about telling your stories to cameras in a large group?  Could you carry signs with photos of your precious lost ones?  or bombard the Twitter-verse to get to the hearts of the public?

Be prepared for the next round of horror, and be prepared to go public.

Our mental health professionals have been warning the public and lawmakers about the magnitude of child suicide for years–the psychiatrists and psychologists and all the other caregivers.  But they use facts, which don’t count in the public eye, whereas personal stories do.

Your comments are encouraged.


3 Replies to “School Shootings, Guns, and Child Mental Illness”

  1. I agree with you. “Parents and family members and friends cannot pull this off alone.” Take the case of Nikolas Cruz. His biological mom was jailed. His adoptive father died when he was younger and his adoptive mom died just three months ago. Tragedies could be prevented if troubled people have guidance. Whether it’s from family members, friends, school officials, neighbors, or professional help.

    Thanks Margaret.

  2. This is really heart-wrenching Margaret. I wish I could say that this is a tragic “story.” But it’s not fiction. What happened to Stoneman Douglas High is real-story. The bad guy is a 19-year-old. Just like Sandy Hook, the shooter was 20 years old. Columbine High School’s shooters were 17 and 18-year-olds. And these were the deadliest school shootings in US history. You are right. This is not just an issue regarding the country’s laws on firearms. I heard the president wanted to raise the purchase age limit to 21. Background check should be stricter, too. Everyone should get involved. the families, communities and authorities. There will always be signs. It’s hard not to get angry with the shooters but it’s also saddening because these people were just kids. Troubled teens who needed someone’s help before they exploded.

    1. Hi Nena,

      Thanks for your comment.

      As the news rolled in on the backstory of Nikolas Cruz, I began recalling all the other shooting events in the past decade and a half. In each case, there were people who knew the young person and his history (writings, thoughts, statements, behaviors). There were reoccurring ominous patterns, and there were people who accurately interpreted the patterns. Of those people who tried to warn others and stop the inevitable, there was no agency or protocol or safety plan for them to turn to; there was no one who could or would act.

      This reminds me of just about every parent I’ve ever met with a troubled child… even an adult child. We can’t get help until something bad happens first.

      Something happened in my city about 10 years ago that strongly affected me because it could have been my story. A man took his grown son to the emergency room because his son had been insisting he was going to stab someone. When there, the staff found no reason to hold the son despite what his medical records showed about his mental illness. The father pleaded with them to put his son in a 72-hour hold and they refused. The son ran off into the surrounding neighborhood, and within an hour, he went into a restaurant, grabbed a steak knife, and ran out and stabbed a man walking on the sidewalk. (The man lived.) The father told the reporter that he’d been trying every possible means to stop this from happening in the hours before the event. Getting the son to go with him to the ER was an extraordinary feat in and of itself. He was beside himself with frustration and sadness and anger.

      If this son had had a gun, the consequences would have been multiple fatalities instead of a single survivable stabbing, but the violence was going to happen either way, whether with a steak knife or a gun. Guns are just more lethal. (This is the reason more young men die of suicide then young women–they don’t attempt it more often, they just choose guns instead of pills (girls’ preferred method).)

      There are mental health experts (and families) out there who can identify an emerging homicidal/suicidal person. There is lots of data to back them up. There are many ways to stop a person with florid and persistent mentally ill symptoms from harming themselves and others. To people out there with influence: help us. Parents and family members and friends cannot pull this off alone. This much is obvious.


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