Domestic Violence, Part II

Mar 16, 2018

Editor’s Note: Today, part two of James Swan’s “Prevention and Violence”

Unlike physical health, where you can scientifically measure some indicators of healthiness like blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate, mental health or illness is as much a matter of judgement as science. Identifying a potential problem person is hindered by the fact that in order for someone to become a psychologist or a psychiatrist in the US, one does not have to go through any personal therapy. Upon graduation, a therapist has supervision, but this does not require being a client. (Psychoanalysts, in contrast, must go through analysis to be certified.) What I found in teaching aspiring psychologists was that the lack of going through therapy in their training, was one reason why many psychologists direct patients to take medicines to suppress symptoms, rather than taking the time to find out why certain mental states exist, because listening to people venting their frustrations stirs up things in the therapist. (I have also taught part-time at four psychology grad schools in California and my classes always included self-awareness exercises, resulting in some students deciding that the best way to be a healer is to get healed first.)

So, when some psychologists have asserted in recent times that mass shooters were not mentally ill, please understand that assessment is their opinion, and professional organizations may or may not agree. Other people say you do not have to wait for someone to develop schizophrenia, have a psychotic episode, hear voices, see visions, and lose touch with reality to have mental illness. For example, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “A mental illness is a condition (caused by genetics, environment or lifestyle) that affects a person's thinking, feeling or mood.” And, they say that one in 5 adults experiences a mental health condition every year. One in 17 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Half of mental health conditions begin by age 14, and 75% of mental health conditions develop by age 24.  

Whether it’s due to mental illness or not, for anyone to commit an act of violence that kills and wounds many other people, they must have a good deal of pent up emotion, fear and anger, and they have taken time to consider what to do about it, and decided to express that anger in hurting and killing other people to get revenge for something. Being angry is not mental illness. It’s how someone handles that anger, in a useful manner or not that is important. 

For perspective, contrast mass shooters with soldiers in war who also kill other people, but their motivation is different. Soldiers may feel guilty about what they have done. This is why PTSD happens, and we have a serious problem with PTSD. Suicides among veterans now often exceed those killed in combat -- 

A very important explanation for the epidemic of PTSD in our armed forces  comes from Dr.Paul Ekmann  whose research finds that training to improve the ability of troops to more effectively perform in combat, including killing the enemy, may result in built-up of guilt that poisons life. (For insights into PTSD see Sgt. Andrew Brandi’s book The Warrior’s Guide to Insanity. 

The US, incidentally is not in the top 25 countries in the world for murder.  And ranking the top 50 cities of the world for murder, New Orleans is 32, Detroit is 28, and Baltimore is 19. Caracas is the worst. The United States is 14th in murder. Iceland and Monaco are the least violent countries.  

Rather than go case by case about mass shooters and debate their motivations, which becomes very difficult to do after their death, it seems more valuable to ask what can be done to prevent future episodes. If we look world-wide, weapons alone are not the problem. Almost anything can be made into a lethal weapon, including a rolled up magazine. How you use it is what matters.  As I have pointed out in an earlier article,  in Switzerland participation in the military is required for all Swiss men, who are given guns to take home, and after they are finished they may take their guns home. So, there is a gun in nearly every house in Switzerland. Additionally, sport shooting is the most popular national sport for the Swiss, and traveling through the country you will see many shooting ranges, and people openly carrying rifles. And yet rates of murder and violent crime are considerably lower in Switzerland than in the US. 

Definitely, we should seek to prevent firearms from falling into the hands of those who will use them to commit crime and violence, but what can we do to prevent conditions that move people to commit crime? Sure, keeping firearms out of the hands of convicted felons and people who have a history of committing violent acts is one thing. Another answer is to offer better mental health services for all so that people can check in with counselors just like having an annual check-up. Part of the problem is that we have a real stigma that if anyone seeks counseling they are automatically mentally ill for life and dangerous. I would argue that most of these people are more likely to be healthier and trustworthy than others who have not gone through some kind of experiential self-education. A mental health program should result in people knowing themselves better and developing skills to better cope with stressful situations in life.  Bottling up all frustrations is not good for mind or body. 

Currently the Olympics are showing people who are very emotionally worked up, but they generally know how to cope with it. Sports are a form of adapted biological expression of aggression. In schools, PE classes and athletic programs teach skills that enable one to express emotions – however, they seldom teach life-long skills, both for enjoyment and for fitness. One exception is the National Archery In The Schools program, which involves millions of kids and is spreading world-wide. NASP teaches kids to use a potentially lethal weapon wisely and for enjoyment. Done correctly, like NASP does, this decreases the potential for violence, develops self-confidence, and it helps kids get outdoors more often which is also good for mental and physical health. NASP reports that golf, ping-pong and badminton are more dangerous than archery. 

Archery is a martial art. It could lead to people becoming violent, but it doesn’t. Instead of schools just teaching sports that most kids stop using when they leave school, teaching other martial arts would be excellent for PE classes, as they teach kids to protect themselves and develop self-confidence and self-esteem, and they offer a way for mastering and releasing emotional energy, such as punching dummies instead of people if you are angry. Research on Chuck Norris’ Kickstart Program shows kids who are taught fighting skills have more self-confidence and get better grades. Another program, The Peter Westbrook Program, developed by a former Olympic fencer, teaches kids to fence and it is having similar positive results. Still another is John Annoni’s Camp Compass program which takes kids from inner city schools and teaches them to hunt, which includes the use of guns.  Again, grades go up, and kids are happier.

The average person visiting a national park these days is there for six hours or less, stays in their car most of the time and does not venture more than 50ft from the road, unless they go to the Visitor Center or restroom. To this, workweek hours have increased, people spend 8 hours or more a day looking at electronic screens which have become the new sixth sense, and again, our schools do not teach kids life skills about enjoying the outdoors, such as developing "Naturalistic Intelligence", which was what all leaders of the conservation movement had. We need to get kids and their parents outdoors, and then teach them how to enjoy it from first-hand experience.
My point here is that growing up is in itself a stressful time, and kids can be very cruel to each other, sometimes because they have not developed interpersonal skills. Combine that with problems at home, and maybe negativity in a neighborhood or community, and kids can build up a lot of negative energies. Sure, our schools should have many more counselors than they now do. And seeing them should not be a stigma. But, school also should offer classes on relationships, emotional health and fitness, as well as conventional gym classes.

And, our schools need to seriously look at what they are teaching and what value it is. How often do you personally use advanced math, geometry, trigonometry or physics? Those should be electives, not required. Our schools have become places where kids are taught to take tests on subjects that most will never use, or they become failures. And that in itself is very stressful. Too many schools have become, as educational psychologist Thomas Armstrong says, “Worksheet Wastelands.” 

How about offering classes on effective communications, along the lines of what Toastmasters do?  Interpersonal communication is definitely a life skill that builds self-confidence. What about biology classes that teach kids to cultivate vegetables and conduct useful conservation projects, like the kids at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, CA who run a state of the art salmon hatchery?  In Alaska, a number of schools and biology classes raise trout and salmon. The fish are raised in the classroom and then released, and then the kids later learn to catch fish, which not only teaches about the cycle of life and the food chain, but teaches a life-long skill.

If we could develop more programs so all kids can find ways to learn to own and express their emotions and energies in ways that build self-confidence, using nature whenever possible, and they could get help if they have situations that are causing them trouble, then we would not need to wait until psychological conditions develop that can result in violence that indicates a kid needs help. In that kind of setting, shooting sports might take on a different perspective. In Europe, the biathlon is most popular sport on TV, and mass shootings there are not nearly as common as in the US. Heroes can have guns, and not hurt people.

The fact that our schools do not teach all kids skills to better cope with life is one big reason why we have national problems of drug use and addiction, obesity, stress and anxiety that lead some folks to commit violent acts.  

Right now we do have some excellent programs for teaching kids about the outdoors. We need more. In 1960, 90% of the people in the US practiced in at least one outdoor sport. Today, less than half say they do. 

Also, right now taking and passing a Hunter Education class is required to get a hunting license in all 50 states. As a result, hunting has become a much safer and enjoyable lifetime sport. I would suggest that all Hunter Education Instructors should also be taught how to recognize students that are potential problems, so they can get help to deal with personal problems. The same could be done for firearms instruction classes. I am not suggesting that such teachers become counselors, that requires additional training, but they could help spot potential problems, and refer people in need. 

Ultimately, one of the strongest ways to improve mental health is when communities themselves are healthy. The same is true for countries. When one looks at the 2 safest countries on the world, Iceland and New Zealand, both are countries with hunting and firearms ownership. Canada and Switzerland, where firearms are plentiful rank 8 and 9, while Japan and Australia, with their strict controls on firearms ownership and use, rank 11 and 12.  Syria remains the least peaceful country in the world, followed by Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, and Yemen. The US, I’m sorry to say, ranks 114th out of 163. We definitely have a ways to go.

-- James A. Swan, PhD