Welcome back! Last week, we talked about HIV/AIDS. If you missed that blog and would like to catch up, click HERE.
This week, we are going to talk about a very polarizing topic. Kids who kill. I want to be clear, that this isn’t going to devolve into a debate on gun control in America. We aren’t going to debate that topic on this blog, because this blog is reserved strictly for topics of wellness, not politics. Some will say, “Well, you can’t talk about this subject without talking about guns” and while that may be true, this isn’t the place for that type of dialogue.
I’m going to ask you to set aside your preconceived notions about how and why kids kill, and take a journey with me that I’m not even going to call mental health, but “brain health“. Many, many people live with mental illness and do not kill. Let’s just put that on the table right now. It’s a fact. To blame all of our gun violence on mental illness is unfair.
This journey will include a few cases that I, myself, have been involved with. The names and circumstances have been changed to protect the youth’s privacy, but the stories are real.
Part of my career included a time serving in juvenile corrections. I worked for a youth ranch where young boys who had committed crimes were sent, prior to turning 18 and being sent to an adult prison. The hardened staff at this facility referred to these young boys as “baby sociopaths“.
Their crimes took me back. One of my “kids” had picked up a girl for a date, taken her out and met up with his friends, where they proceeded to get her drunk, then gang raped her. She was a virgin. These boys, led by my “kid” then left her on her father’s lawn, nude, having stuck her entire body with thumb tacks and taken a sharpie and “tagged” their gang signs all over her naked torso.
I would like to say that I stepped into this youth’s life and changed him forever, but that wasn’t how it happened. At one point, he trapped me in my office, angry that I had taken his weekend pass away for not following the rules. I heard the door shut, heard the lock click, and looked up to see him taking off his pants.
The other youth in this facility, and the senior staff, had all been on the field, playing kick ball. He had run in “to use the restroom“, but was actually coming in to take advantage of me being alone with my paperwork. I knew I was in serious trouble, so I did the only thing I could do, and I put my chair through the window to attract attention. My colleagues ran to my rescue and the event ended.
I met with him that same day, so as not to show fear, and looked him in the eye saying, “I’m trying to help you, here. Let me help you“. I saw tears start to form, and suddenly he was pouring his heart out to me. His childhood had been one trauma after another. Tied up, beaten with electrical cords, locked in a closet for hours while his mother turned tricks on the couch for drugs.
I let him talk and get it all out, and when he was done, he looked up at me with the saddest eyes I had ever seen, and he said, “I just want to die…why can’t I just die“. This youth, once he had served his time, went back to the streets and died during an altercation with police.
My next story is about a youth I will call Jay. Jay had been in trouble all of his teen years. He dearly loved his mother, and spoke fondly of her often. His “wish” in life was to have a new pair of shoes, “not hand me downs, but NEW“. Our facility bought him a pair. He was on cloud nine.
One day, I was holding a group session on “doing the right thing” and asked the youth, “what does the word Integrity really mean?“. He anxiously held up his hand. I asked him to tell us what that meant, and he said, “It’s doing the right thing, even if nobody sees you“. I asked him, “Do you have integrity, Jay?”. He thought long and hard, and then said, “Yes ma’am, I do“. I told him I would hold him to that. I had no idea how important that challenge would be later on in his treatment.
Several weeks later the local youth authority decided it was time to move him to a different facility. He didn’t want to leave. He begged me in my office to let him stay, but it was out of my control. Jay then lost hope, and with that, he allowed his rage to come to the surface. I was suddenly the face of every single person who had ever lied to him, let him down, hurt him.
He reached over and grabbed the staff coffee pot, broke it on a chair, and stuck the shattered edges to my throat. It happened so fast, I had no time to respond. He had me. He drug me out of the office in front of my horrified colleagues and toward the kitchen, screaming , “Get back or I’ll kill her! I’m NOT LEAVING HERE!!!“.
We got to the kitchen, where he kicked the door in, breaking the lock off the door with his rage. Inside, he grabbed the biggest butcher knife he could find and traded it for the coffee pot. I could hear the facility being emptied. We were on lock down. I was locked inside.
Soon enough, I heard a helicopter overhead. SWAT had arrived. I was talking to him this entire time…soothing him…asking him how this was going to end. He didn’t know. He wasn’t leaving there alive….he knew that. He wanted to die.
The Sheriff sent in a team well qualified in hostage negotiations. I was released. I was taken to another part of the facility, and with my colleagues, we waited. Several hours went by. Suddenly, the Captain came into our room and said, “He wants to talk to you“.
My supervisor stood up and said, “Not happening“, but I went with the officer. They positioned me outside the cafeteria window, a very large window overlooking the dining hall. By now, he had run around collecting ammunition. Pool sticks, pool balls. My heart broke when I saw his panicked face. I stood there, pleading with him surrounded by officers, guns pointed at him. I knew this was life or death for him.
After 45 minutes of negotiating with him, Jay looked at me, and put his pool cue through the window, shattering it over my head. He held up the knife, I heard the guns around me click and I knew this was it. I started yelling, “WAIT! Jay! Remember when you told me you had integrity? Did you lie to me? Cause right now, you aren’t showing me you have any integrity at all. What would your mother think? Give them the knife, Jay!“. I heard someone yell, “Hold your fire!”. I couldn’t breathe…waiting…waiting…
Jay looked stunned. He stood there, unable to process. Did he have integrity? I could see him asking himself. After what felt like forever, he looked at the ground, and handed over the knife. He fell into my arms, crying, saying over and over again, “I just wanted to die…”.
After that day, I started reviewing for the second time around, all the kids on my case load. I looked at their charts with a fresh set of eyes. History after history after history…abuse. These kids were victims long before they were ever perpetrators. My stomach was sick, and for maybe the first time, I started seeing them as victims, not “baby sociopaths“. How do you undo years of trauma? Or can you?
I tell you these stories, not to ask for sympathy for the youth. I know that all of your emotions lie with their victims, and I understand that completely. But if we are to ever get a grip on the violence in our society, we must first find the root cause.
A child doesn’t just wake up one day and decide to go to school and kill a bunch of their classmates, then kill themselves. Something goes wrong with their brain health, long before these events ever take place.
Unlike the mental health issues that most of us live with, these kids have experienced something more…something that breaks them. Trauma.
The Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University, says this about early brain development, “Early experiences affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. Just as a weak foundation compromises the quality and strength of a house, adverse experiences early in life can impair brain architecture, with negative effects lasting into adulthood.
“In the absence of responsive caregiving—or if responses are unreliable or inappropriate—the brain’s architecture does not form as expected, which can lead to disparities in learning and behavior. Ultimately, genes and experiences work together to construct brain architecture.”
So there you have it. Children need a responsive, reliable, and appropriate caregiving response from their parents/caregivers. When those responses are inappropriate, such as beating a child with electrical cords or locking them in a closet, the brain cannot and will not form properly.
Youth who develop unbalanced brain chemistries then may go on to experience depression, and depression can then begin to build when coupled with bullying, lack of social support at school, and more. Many parents have no idea how difficult the situations may be for their youth, until it’s too late.
The World Health Organization give us multiple risk factors that may preclude a violent attack, such as “a desire for greater autonomy, pressure to conform with peers, exploration of sexual identity, and increased access to and use of technology. Media influence and gender norms can exacerbate the disparity between an adolescent’s lived reality and their perceptions or aspirations for the future. Other important determinants for the mental health of adolescents are the quality of their home life and their relationships with their peers. Violence (including harsh parenting and bullying) and socio-economic problems are recognized risks to mental health. Children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to sexual violence, which has a clear association with detrimental mental health.“
This issue is a multifaceted one, the scope of which cannot be included in this blog. I urge you to click on this link for more information, including tools the WHO has developed for:
- psychological first aid
- clinical management of mental disorders
- mental health system recovery
(all of which consider issues related to young people).
The following video is hard to watch. It takes an open heart and an open mind to view it in it’s entirety. I encourage you to do so. This is Sue Klebold. Her son was one of two shooters who committed the Columbine High School massacre, murdering 12 students and 1 teacher. She’s spent years excavating every detail of her family life, trying to understand what she could have done to prevent her son’s violence.
In this difficult, jarring talk, Klebold explores the intersection between mental health and violence, advocating for parents and professionals to continue to examine the link between suicidal and homicidal thinking.