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Profile of the Ohio School Shooter - By Chris Gearing

Monday, February 27, 2012

Watch Dr Sylvia Gearing on CBS 11 discuss the tragic Ohio high school shooting - click here.

With the tragic news of a school shooting at an Ohio high school this week, many Americans are shocked that shootings continue to occur in a post-Columbine world.

Since the tragic Columbine shootings in April 1999, psychologists have assembled a list of common denominators between school shooters.

Teenage Males: They are usually Caucasian males between the ages of 11 and 18 with the average age being 16 who are engaging in their first act of lethal violence. Boys between the ages of 13 and 19 commit about 1/3 of violent crimes.

Rural Settings: School shootings usually occur in the rural or suburban areas outside larger cities. The kids are from a blue collar or middle class backgrounds.

Seasonality: Time of year has a lot to with this kind of crime with most of them occurring between December and May (usually in the Spring).

Tough Home Life: Family background is usually highly dysfunctional and attachment to the parents has been compromised in some ways. The family often looks fairly normal to the community and people are often surprised that the child becomes a murder. Discipline is overly harsh and applied inconsistently.

Cold Blooded: Premeditation is a central part of the crime. Smuggling a gun or guns into a school takes forethought and cunning. There is a plan that has been carefully constructed somewhere along the way. Acquisition of firearm—almost always from the home-- is necessary as is the requisite clothing to hide the firearms as the enter the school.

What would push a teenager to engage in this type of lethal crime against his peers?

Vengeance is the primary motive for almost all of the school shootings and again, this teenager has a history of being bullied and being socially isolated. The second motivation is to achieve notoriety.

The shooters are often perceived as nerdy and physically unattractive and are the common targets of ridicule from other children. Anger and resentment build up over time.. Suddenly there is a precipitating event that forces them to lose control and to lash out in a murderous rage.

If the target is a school official, then a teacher or a principal has had to take disciplinary action against the child.

If the targets includes peers, those who are deemed responsible for the torment are targeted almost exclusively. Many of the kids who have been shot in the past are the more popular or successful kids who are perceived as having wronged the shooter at some point in time.

What are these kids like emotionally and psychologically?

Socially Withdrawn: Most of the time, school shooters are emotionally immature, isolated and socially withdrawn. The emotional centers of the brain are not fully connected to the logical analytical parts of our brain that tells us that “no injustice is worth taking someone else’s life.”

Violence Unites Them: If they do have friends, the friendships generally revolve around their dark view of the world—militaristic, violent, “dog eat dog” kinds of views that justify their social isolation and bond them to one another. They enjoy bragging about their interest in violence and killing and are fascinated by the weapons of violence—guns, bombs, knives, and online or media depictions of violence or death.

Hypersensitive to Criticism: Cognitively these kids are very rigid and simplistic in how they view others. They don’t examine their judgments of others and are quick to assume that others are criticizing them. They are distrustful and view themselves as victims of others. Hypersensitivity is common and they anticipate rejection. They do not usually trust adults.

When does the child cross the line to violence?

Prior to the crime, the child begins to:

  • Feel justified to kill
  • Perceive few or no alternatives
  • Believe that the consequences will be worth it

Here are some warning signs if you are concerned about your child:

Learning to predict violence is the first step to preventing violence. Remember that most of the time, these crimes are well rehearsed. The school shooter fantasizes about revenge against those who are perceived to have harmed him. They often have protracted mental and behavioral rehearsals of their acts of violence in which they carefully select the victims, the time, location, means of killing and how it will play out.

Remember that their violence is calculated--it is not a crime of impulse or passion. It is a crime of intentional revenge.

Here are some warning signs of school shooters:

  • Lack of Conscience
  • Angry Outbursts
  • Depressed, Sullen Behavior
  • Tendency To Follow "Leaders" No Matter What
  • History of Oppositional Behaviors
  • Actual Threats—Written or Spoken
  • Past Acts of Violence
  • Access to Weapons
  • Past Suicide Attempts
  • Family History of Violence or Bullying
  • Cruelty to Animals

Sources:

The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker

The Classroom Avenger by James P. McGee Ph.D. and Caren DeBernardo, Psy.D.

Josh Hamilton's Tragic Relapse - By Chris Gearing

Friday, February 03, 2012

News broke on Tuesday that the heroic Ranger's outfielder, Josh Hamilton, had a relapse in his long battle with alcoholism. Many Rangers fans are wondering why Josh can't kick the habit and what this means for his future.

So, why can’t people just quit the addictive behavior?

All addictions are unintentional and they begin with the decision to use. No one starts drinking with the idea that they will ever become addicted. But addiction sneaks up on you and before you know it, you can be drawn into a world of confusion and torment. Voluntary users become compulsive users and then you bottom out as a true addict when drugs or alcohols define your life.

The real issue is that addiction is not a moral failing or a lapse in will. At the end of the day, addiction is a brain disease. New research shows that there are literal brain changes in the structure and function of key brain processes that are fundamental in handling emotions, exercising self-control, and reading situations correctly. Addicts are stripped of their accuracy in understanding the world.

How do addictions get started and become worse over time?

Internal Shift: The person begins to turn toward behavior that is relieving his stress. Getting high is fun and it changes his mood for the better in the beginning. He denies how dangerous his usage is as he begins to betray others and himself with repeated use.

Lifestyle Change: A behavioral dependency on the alcohol or drug now emerges. Life is now altered to accommodate the addiction even if he becomes reckless and self-destructive. He moves deeper into the self-sabotaging behavior as he builds his life around getting high.

His Life Destructs: The addiction has now taken over. The individual relies on getting high and ignores or rationalizes the destructive aspects of his behavior. At this point, nothing matters to the addict but the acquisition of the substance. The obsession with the addiction causes a trance state. People don’t matter, commitments don’t count, and honesty isn’t even a part of the conversation.

Unstoppable: People become convinced that they cannot stop the drinking. Since there are significant changes in brain structure that are critical to judgment, decision making, learning, memory, and behavioral control, the slide into addiction is accelerated.

How do you know that someone is at rock bottom?

A chronically addicted person tends to psychologically regress suddenly and severely, with no warning. They go down like a stone. Once the addiction switch is flipped, it is incredibly difficult to reverse the emotions and behavior. Insight is gone, judgment is gone, and perspective is shot. If the addictive substance—whatever it is—is strong enough, all bets are off. He begins to destroy every area of his life—his job, his relationships and even his health. Addiction hijacks the mind and better judgment.

What do we tell our children about people like Josh Hamilton who struggle with addiction?

This is a prime opportunity to teach kids about addiction and the inevitable struggles of recovery. Remember these points:

Teachable Moment: Make stories about addiction struggles a part of the conversation. You want your child to be armed with knowledge of addiction so he is never start the cycle. Remember that the child who stays away from drugs, tobacco, and abusing alcohol until age 21 is virtually certain to steer clear of these substances forever. Teens who learn about the risks of drugs or alcohol from their parents are much less likely to try them.

Still A Good Person: Most kids already know what addiction is, since Americans consume two thirds of the worlds’ illegal drugs. Celebrities who have struggled with addictions are always in the news so a lot of kids understand that you can be a talented, good person and still have an addiction.

Constant Battle: Break the addictive behavior down into understandable language. Explain that alcoholism is a disease and that it is a lifelong struggle to overcome it. Tell them that relapse is a part of recovery and that all that matters is how the alcoholic handles their next choice.

There’s Always Hope: Teach them to believe in recovery, believe in the person’s ability to fight against this illness, and to celebrate the gains that people show as they power on to a better tomorrow.

The Health Effects of Nostalgia - By Chris Gearing

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Watch Dr Sylvia Gearing on YouTube describe how nostalgia and remembering the good times can actually be good for your health - click here.

Part of the magic of family is getting together and revisiting family traditions – eating a family meal together at the holidays, watching the same movie, or singing the same songs. But did you know that those nostalgic feelings are actually good for you?

In a recent study, nostalgia was found to have a physically comforting and relaxing effect on the body. Subjects had lower blood pressure, calm heart rates, and lower levels of anxiety.

So if you’re looking to take the edge off of your stressful day, take a trip down memory lane and remember everything that you have to be thankful for.

Source:

“The Power of Nostalgia at Thanksgiving” by Jacque Wilson, CNN.com

Do You Have A Bad First Name? - By Chris Gearing

Friday, January 20, 2012

Watch Dr Sylvia on YouTube explain what to do if your first name is holding you back in life - click here.

A recent study in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science found that your first name could have unintended ill effects on your future life! The effects were felt in everything from job searches to the dating scene!

With findings like that, many people are wondering how to change or downplay their names. I have seen three trends that work:

Abbreviate: Abbreviate your name and make it more common and traditional in social settings. For example, you can use your initials or part of the name as a handle.

Adopt Your Last Name: Use your last name as your nickname or use a similar name such as substituting Jack for John. People who have pleasant last names can shorten it and add a “y” to the end – names like “Sully” and “Scotty.”

Give Up on Your Name Entirely: The final option is to change your name completely -- sometimes people despise their name so much that they lose the name. They legally change the name to one that reflects who they are now. If a dramatic name change is done in adulthood, it can be unsettling for the parents. However, putting up with a name you can’t stand is unfair in the long run.

Sources:

Parent Magazine

“Generation Me” by Jean Twenge

“Freakonomics” by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Cowardice and Self Control - By Chris Gearing

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Watch Dr Sylvia Gearing on CBS 11 discuss how cowardice and survival may be related to self control - click here.

Why would someone in a position of responsibility abandon the people that he was supposed to protect?

There is a big difference between what people say they will do and what they actually do, especially when high emotion are in play. None of us want to think that we would act like this ship’s captain. We all want to think that our duty would keep us on track irrespective of our own welfare.

However, science tells us something different. In real life, when there is a potential life threatening situation and when strangers surround us, many of us would run. Our moral compass fails completely. We may surrender the responsibility for rescue to others—what psychologists call diffusion of responsibility. As in this case, we might choose to escape and call it something else (I was going for help!), but really we consider nothing but our own survival.

Do you have any idea of what went on in the captains’ mind when he jumped ship?

He was probably in the moment and totally overwhelmed by events he could barely decipher. The bottom line is that there was a total lack of self-control. In fact, it is a well-known axiom in psychology that most major problems that we create for ourselves boil down to a simple failure of self-control. We say something we shouldn’t say, we spend money we shouldn’t spend, or we take that drink we shouldn’t have. No consequences are important when emotion overrides reason.

Self Control Lapses Share These Characteristics:

Impulsive Behavior—We act before we think

Emotionally Driven Decision Making--When the events are happening quickly and unexpectedly, the emotional brain can hijack our analytical brain.

Consequences are Irrelevant

The Only Goal Is To Escape the Immediate Problem

What does a courageous person look like?

Courage Under Fire: Courageous people may look ordinary but their actions are extraordinary. Under fire, they choose to perform the extraordinary, heroic act even if their personal welfare is jeopardized. For instance, Captain Sullenberger was an unknown pilot until that fateful day on the Hudson when he heroically landed his plane.

Cognitive Self Control: Heroic people remain focused and block out distractions while they solve the problem in front of them. They remain proactive, not reactive.

Emotional Self Control: Every person has the ability to do extraordinary things, but true heroes are able to show tremendous emotional self-control in bad situations. Most of us would be overwhelmed but their emotional control allows them to move through adversity and solve the problem.

What can we do to make sure that we are stronger when adversity strikes?

Conserve Your Energy: Depleted people make poor decisions under fire. Live a deliberate life and don’t procrastinate. The mind tends to grow more negative when we chronically fail to follow through on goals.

Build Self Control Before the Crisis: People who rank high in self-control report the least amounts of stress. They practice leading orderly, disciplined lives. When adversity strikes, they are ready to make the tough decisions and to solve the issue.

Play Offense with Your Stress: Very stressed people make the worst decisions when bad things happen. Use your self-control today to not just get through a crisis but to avoid them as much as you can.

Suicide and Teens - By Chris Gearing

Monday, January 16, 2012

With the shocking news this weekend that a Texas teenage committed suicide by jumping off the 18th floor of the Dallas Hyatt hotel, many Americans are worried about their own teens and the risk of suicide.

So, why would a teenager choose to end his life?

Feeling Hopeless: Suicide becomes an option for a young person when all hope is lost. In fact, hopelessness is the attitude most highly correlated with those who attempt to end their lives. Suicide has become the third leading cause of death for kids between the ages of 10 and 24.

Motivations for Suicide are Complex: The motivations for either attempting or completing suicide are complex but the main motivations include a desire to escape depression and loss, debilitating anxiety or a situation they regard as being unsolvable such as being bullied or abused. The older the child is, the more likely it is that the suicide is connected to their own interpersonal conflicts.

Are our children more depressed or are we just better at detecting depression?

Both statements are true since this generation's children are more depressed but we also have more safeguards in place to detect the depression. That being said, depressed kids are vastly underserved in our society with very few being seen by a psychologist. We know that depression has increased tenfold over the last century and strikes a full decade earlier than it did fifty years ago. Severe depression reoccurs most of the time—about 50% of the time. In fact, The Center for Disease Control now reports that anti-depressants are the most prescribed drugs in America. We are much more likely to battle depression and other mental illness for our entire lives.

What about those teens who are depressed and make attempts to hurt themselves but are never brought to the attention of medical professionals?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 150, 000 kids between the ages of 10 and 24 receive medical attention at the emergency room because of self-inflicted injuries. But that is when the denial kicks in. Very few of them actually follow up with psychological treatment or counseling. They tend to downplay what happened. They feel that they just need to get their child home and figure this out. No matter what recommendations are made by doctors or other healthcare professionals, families tend to blow it off. Kids can be very depressed and hide it well.

However, the numbers do change after the second attempt. Families do seek treatment after a second suicide attempt as they begin to realize that this is more of a chronic issue and is not a fleeting crisis.

Are there gender differences in completed suicides?

Eighty four percent of completed suicides are committed by boys, even though girls are much more likely to attempt. Suicide remains a health threat for men throughout adulthood with four times as many males dying by suicide as females. The reason for this large gap is that boys and men use much more violent and lethal means of committing suicide with guns, cars, or in this case - jumping off of a building. Girls and women choose much quieter means of suicide such as poison or overdosing.

This country has a double standard of masculinity. We want our boys to be strong and courageous and virile and yet have access to their emotions. Too many boys are confused about how to express their feelings. Anger is the only emotion some boys feel that they can express. When depression strikes, they are more reluctant to admit that they are vulnerable and that they are struggling. Depression is a progressive illness and can lead to suicide if it becomes too severe and too intense, but it can also be treated and success rates rise exponentially depending on how early in the depression the child begins treatment.

Here are some warning signs if you are worried about your teen:

  • History of previous suicide attempts
  • Family history of suicide
  • History of Depression or other mental illness
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Stressful life event or loss like a relationship breakup
  • Easy access to lethal means
  • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others
  • Increased withdrawal from others
  • More angry outbursts
  • Increased Need for Sleep, Low Appetite
  • Dramatic Mood Swings

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