With the start of the school year, concern is mounting among school children, parents and teachers who fear that an enraged young man wielding a weapon is escaping from their school’s security fortress. The recent Senate passage of the bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA), which earmarked $8.5 billion to support school mental health programs and community mental health centers, is an excellent beginning. Although only 4% of school shooters were mentally ill at the time, preventing and treating mental illnesses will reduce the likelihood of a would-be shooter committing mass murder and, more importantly, impacting all forms of violence in our country.
School shootings are just the tip of the iceberg, below which lies a 21st century public health epidemic of violence against self and others, exacerbated by the pandemic. American deaths from desperation by suicide, overdose and alcohol toxicity have increased, including a 60% increase in teen suicide from 2007 to 2018, and there was a record 1,286 fatal overdoses in Minnesota in 2021. Interpersonal violence directed at partners, children and strangers has jumped the past two years in the United States, the highest homicide rate in 25 years. Surviving family members suffer in silence because of stigma. The burden of non-lethal violence is incalculable.
As a nurse practitioner providing primary care in the Twin Cities and a mother to a daughter who died by suicide and a son who was bullied at school, I believe that violence in America requires a long-term investment. in social-emotional learning (SEL) as a core subject from K-12 in partnership with families and communities. The current assortment of voluntary SEL programs cannot teach the emotional intelligence required to prevent violence.
Emotional intelligence, called EQ, is best taught during childhood, when the brain easily remodels itself in response to new ways of thinking and perceiving. EQ increases awareness of thoughts and feelings to better manage personal distress, empathize by taking others’ perspectives, communicate and collaborate effectively, and deal with obstacles patiently.
To understand the need for social-emotional learning, one must understand the psychosocial dynamics underlying aggression. In the case of school shootings, 99% are perpetrated by men. These lonely, alienated men feel like losers in a society that emphasizes competition to gain athletics, higher degrees, wealth, power, and sexual success. Boys learn that masculinity means the suppression of emotional expression except for anger which reinforces them. Current or past school bullying and shame by any credible source causes self-isolation – a breeding ground for destructive emotions, including anger, resentment, fear, self-loathing and sadness . A distorted rumination can emerge, precipitating the unstoppable rage that fuels a rampage.
A pattern of perceived loss and failure is common to suicide, fatal substance use, homicide, and mass murder. Personal rejection by a loved one, difficulties in school, sexual assault, crippling physical condition, PTSD, and job termination, among a myriad of adversities, heighten a person’s sense of unworthiness, even self-hatred. The loss of housing, health insurance or child care amplifies despair. An inherited biology of pessimism and emotional volatility, mental illness and/or substance use disorders compound adverse life experiences, nature via nurture, to cause a person to grab a gun at fire, a noose or pills to extinguish an intolerable conscience. Or to excite others.
With its tradition of investing in social capital, Minnesota can lead the nation in supporting the growth of our hearts and minds. Logarithmically, the more students, teachers, coaches, and family members trained in SEL, the greater the likelihood of recognizing a person at risk of violence against themselves and/or others. others and to intervene in time.
We cannot wait for Congress to fix our gun culture or rely solely on parents to take the reins of raising resilient children. No matter how high a person’s IQ is, our competitive individualistic society needs EQ to survive and thrive. Now is the time for the Minnesota Department of Education to commit to making social-emotional learning a core subject. Meanwhile, we can fund districts ready to pilot an integrated, evidence-based program at all levels using US bailout funds and the state’s $9.3 billion surplus. With the wisdom and willingness to embrace others with compassion, we will reap the full benefits of well-being in our connected world.
Rachel Frazin, of St. Paul, is an advanced practice registered nurse and memoirist.