Predicting violent behavior

Predicting violent behavior in an individual is like trying to put together a complex puzzle that has several missing pieces. This is because indicators of violence are often looked back upon after a traumatic event has already occurred as primary and secondary victims gather information about the perpetrator.

College and church campuses have become too frequent settings for shooting rampages that end in multiple deaths. After such tragedies, everyone involved looks back and asks a variation of the same two questions. “Could this have been prevented? Did this person give clues or display a set of behaviors that should have been noticed by parents, teachers, or acquaintances?” The problem is that indicators are often observed in bits and pieces by a number of different individuals. Without the benefit of the “whole picture” there is often not a clear pattern of potential violence.

Even those who have ample opportunity to observe conduct that is disquieting and even frightening, frequently do not bring such behaviors to the attention of those who might be able to help. The reasons are fairly obvious. Teachers, employers, and even peers shy away from becoming involved with someone who demonstrates emotional instability out of fear. Parents and family members are not dispassionate and so are often unable to see a loved one’s negative behaviors objectively. What parent wants to entertain the notion that his child could be capable, no matter how unmanageable, of going on a shooting spree and murdering innocent men, women, and children? Worse yet, how reprehensible is it to consider that one’s child could somehow end up taking his or her own life?

Predicting acts of carnage before they happen is a hapless task, at best. Identifying behavioral patterns or personality disturbances, that left untreated could lead to violence, is realistic, however. The FBI has compiled a profile of a potentially violent individual using an assessment that looks at personality, social, school and family dynamics. The following is a more pragmatic list of potential indicators that an individual may pose a mental health risk, including a threat to self and/or others.

•  Has history of drug and/or alcohol abuse

•  Has been diagnosed with a mental illness or mood disorder characterized by episodes of depression and/or mania

•  Has been involved in gang activity or with other individuals who display antisocial behavior

•  Has a history of conduct and/or oppositional behavior with displays of overt aggression

•  Has displayed a recent change in interpersonal behaviors that could be characterized as extreme

•  Has threatened violence in writings

•  Has previously threatened suicide or made verbal threats toward another person

•  Has suffered emotional abuse from others resulting in isolation

•  Has been noted to display lack of remorse and lack of empathy toward others

•  Has a history of cruelty to animals

•  Has a history of discontinuing medications, or has recently gone off of (against medical advice) prescribed psychotropic medications 

 While none of these, alone, may suggest a conclusive probability of violence, any one of them is cause enough to inform involved individuals of concerns. If it were possible to retrace the steps leading up to a single act of violence,  they would undoubtedly uncover many missed opportunities along the way to have offered a listening ear, suggested counseling, or even played a supportive role in arranging for a psychiatric evaluation.

Though turning back the clock before a violent event is no more possible than predicting violence, it is possible to educate those who stand to lose the most.  Parents, teachers and staff can be taught to take a more proactive position on observing and reporting, when necessary.

A number of college campuses and universities across the country are beginning to look at preventive strategies for addressing violence. Think tanks to raise public awareness, classes to help those who are living with family members with mental illness, and free counseling services for help with conflict resolution and anger management are all a part of a diverse range of pilot programs being offered to students and families. Grant monies are available for developing curriculum to raise community awareness to the warning sign of potential violent behavior.

Dr. Bruce Perry, an expert in child trauma, has identified several areas of strength that, when developed healthfully, will help to emotionally inoculate a child against violence in latter life. He suggests that children who are able set their own internal limits, form healthy interpersonal relationships, and demonstrate respect for others, are less likely to exhibit violence as adults.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Perhaps instead of focusing on the predictability of violent actions we should be concentrating on helping to prevent violence. Through individual vigilance and social awareness, we can all watch for warning signs and become more proactive in doing our part to help those who pose a potential risk to themselves and to others.