A Lesson From Tragedy

By John Reilly, MSW, LCSW

Tragedy offers an opportunity to gain insight. What can be taken away from the latest tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut? Let us not miss the opportunity to intervene, in the best way possible, with those who suffer from emotional disorders. Many people suffer from emotional problems. Most people won’t do harm to themselves or others; however, those who commit the types of atrocities like the one in Newtown, have serious emotional issues that are usually apparent beforehand.

I just finished reading a book called Columbine, by Dave Cullen. Like many, I heard the supposed motives behind the killing spree and believed that these kids were loners, who were picked on and took revenge against the jocks and bullies who tortured them over the years. Many believed these boys just snapped. None of this has shown to be true. Columbine was a planned action, two years in the making, mastermined by two young men. Both, had active social lives, but one was a psychopath who followed through with the help of his friend whose rage was fueled by depression. One killed for pleasure and infamy; the other out of a sense of hopelessness and being unfortunately linked to the psychopath’s seductive influence.

Shooter, Eric Harris’s psychopathology made him impervious to the interventions he received. He honed his ability to con and appear more empathic, leading the professionals who assessed him as having improved from the treatment; when in reality only his appearance improved. The other shooter, Dylan Klebold suffered from depression and a detachment that made him difficult to engage in treatment. Unlike the more charming Eric, he did not win over his counselors who characterized his difficulty engaging in treatment and morose personality as disinterest in help rather than depression. Depression can often present that way. Dylan’s type of presentation is a challenge for the therapist since it takes a long time to earn a connection into their world and that work takes patience and experience. Close to the end, his participation in the killings could have been changed, since his whole personality was full of ambivalence. Eric Harris, on the other hand, saw the event as his destiny and a satisfaction of his lust for power and control.

The Newtown shooter was identified as “in need of support” early in his high school career and was assigned to counseling with the school psychologist. He was not seen as a danger to others, but rather, there was concern for his adjustment to high school and to his safety. Although there was an intervention, there are questions about the intensity and appropriateness of that intervention.

In my 22 years of practice and 15 years of running a therapeutic school, I have met with countless students who were put on medications that didn’t work and were with counselors who had little training who deemed these students too resistant for the work or too difficult to engage. Therapy is complex work, and is best conducted by therapists who are well trained and well supervised. Many therapists receive little of either. Unfortunately, many of the therapists working with the most serious cases or at the earliest stages of intervention are the least experienced and trained. Therapy can be a powerful intervention in helping to transform an individual and family, however, the focus on short term, insurance driven treatment does a disservice to the concept of intervention and treatment. Adolescents are guarded and it takes a long time to establish a relationship that can become therapeutic. Those of us who do this work know that it can be a painstaking process, but one that can lead to some of the most incredible changes over time. I have had the opportunity to counsel individuals, and supervise many therapists and have seen people who feel hopeless, angry and depressed come back from the brink of the unthinkable and lead happy lives.

While one tragedy like Newtown seems too frequent, thankfully it is not as common  as it seems. Most schools are secure and safe. Most individuals who suffer do so without violence. Professionals need to be prepared to help these tough-to-reach individuals, since it is that quality that feeds suffering and feeling disenfranchised. Let us take this latest tragedy as an opportunity to better address the needs of those who we know are suffering while at the same time pass legislation that addresses access to guns. Doing one without the other, will do little to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.