Saturday, April 18, 2009

Ever-increasing Aggression and Violence in the United States

The shootings at Virginia Tech University in April 2007 brought home the tragic consequences of violence in a most poignant manner. As yet another instance of senseless aggression unfolded, the nation watched as details emerged about the perpetrator and the deaths of 32 students and professors. The shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, lived a troubled life characterized by social isolation, alienation, and depression. Furthermore, professors at Virginia Tech had recognized erratic behavior in Mr. Cho and had referred him for counseling and mental health treatment on several different occasions.
On the other hand, Mr. Cho's victims were, by all accounts, normal students going about their daily routines. Sadly, we could easily substitute the name of any U.S. university for Virginia Tech. Images of what happened on April 16 in Blacksburg have filled the thoughts and minds of university students, faculty, and staff across the nation.

Reports of frantic parents trying to reach their loved ones and of cell phones ringing in the pockets of dead students affected the psyche of an entire country. The Virginia Tech shootings were preceded and followed by several other instances of deadly violence on at least various other educational campuses.

The shootings at Virginia Tech remind us that violent behavior often occurs in unexpected places under hard-to-predict circumstances. It is interesting that recent shootings on U.S. campuses have occurred when rates for most types of aggression and violence have achieved their lowest levels in years.

Trends in Aggression and Violence
Trends in aggression and violence generally mirror a host of individual, social, and economic patterns. For example, the well-documented increase in youth violence between the late 1980s and mid-1990s was linked to increases in gang involvement and crack cocaine use. Conversely, reductions in youth violence in the past decade have been associated with the implementation of innovative law enforcement strategies, improvements in economic opportunities, and efficacious prevention approaches in communities and schools. Disentangling and interpreting trends in violent conduct, however, is a daunting task for policy officials and practitioners.

Offender and victimization data compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice reveal a decrease in violence between the mid-1990s and 2004. For example, the rate of violent crime for the offenses of murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault decreased 26% between 1996 and 2004.

Similarly, data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, an annual household survey of crime victimization in the United States, indicate that the victimization rate for violent crime fell to an all-time low of 21 incidents per 1,000 residents in 2005 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007). Finally, a decline in juvenile violence has also been reported widely in recent years; for example, the arrest rate for violent crimes by youths under the age of 18 decreased by 49% between 1994 and 2004.

However, an increase in violent crime rates among adults in the past few years may signal an end to the downward turn in violent crime in the United States. Notably, overall violent crime increased by a little more than 2% between 2004 and 2005, and data released in 2007 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicate that violent crime increased 1% between 2005 and 2006.

In sum, trends of violent conduct in the United States reveal both optimism and concern. On the one hand, a decade-long decline in violence has led to a greater sense of security among many citizens and to more opportunities for people at greatest risk of criminal involvement. However, recent increases in gun violence may signal that a new trend of escalating violence is emerging among adults and young people in the United States.

Regardless of the validity of these apparent trends, U.S. citizens appear to be concerned about the sheer volume of media reports detailing violent conduct among adults and young people in the past several years. Aggressive and violent behavior remains unacceptably high in the United States, particularly in comparison to other nations in the international community.

Directions for Practice, Policy, and Research
Although helpful in understanding the epidemiology of violent conduct, offender and victimization trends neither offer specific solutions to preventing aggression and violence nor portend exactly the type of violent acts committed at Virginia Tech. However, trends in violence and advances in detecting, preventing, and treating violent offenders suggest at least two key areas of social intervention.

Connecting Violence and Mental Illness
Profiles of the perpetrators of school shootings in the past decade reveal that many shooters experienced mental health problems before their decisions to engage in violence. In many cases, including the Columbine High School shootings in Litdeton.CO, the perpetrators had been isolated socially from their peers and had been the recipients of bullying and teasing from other students.

Other shooters had been diagnosed with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety that went untreated. Mr. Cho was referred for counseling several times at Virginia Tech following his submission of violence laced poetry and short stories in English classes. Images in his writings included frequent references to hate and death. Unfortunately, his participation in counseling and therapy was sporadic, and no requirements were available to force Mr. Cho to continue his therapy.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, President Bush formed a study group to examine a variety of issues, including the relationship between mental health and violence. Released June 13, 2007, the Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy describes the need for universities, law enforcement, and human services agencies to more effectively share information about troubled students such as Mr. Cho. The report also emphasizes the need for people with mental illness to receive treatment.

We know that the link between mental health problems and violence should be given more attention in education, research, and policy circles. School social workers and mental health professionals should receive ongoing training in recognizing the possibility that students with mental health problems may be at elevated risk of aggression and violence. Researchers need to improve the ability to detect the likelihood of violence among young people who suffer from mental health problems or disorders.

Finally, institutional policies must be more effective in ensuring that students who are.......referred for treatment actually receive the help they need. Of course, the line between experiencing mental health problems and committing violent acts is a complex and fuzzy one. Most young people and adults with mental health problems never engage in violence. Yet, finding markers that elevate the risk of violence and ensuring appropriate treatments for mental health disorders must be key public policy, research, and practice goals.
Enhanced Gun Control Policies

Gun control legislation has had a long and inconsistent history in the United States. Congress first passed laws controlling firearms in the early 20th century. Throughout the past century, the issue has been debated frequently by opponents and proponents. Each side has used a different interpretation of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, a provision giving citizens the right to bear arms, to boost its arguments for or against gun control. Background checks and purchasing limitations, trigger locks, and the use of assault weapons have been among the hotly debated issues.

Historically, the majority of gun control acts have been generated and either passed or not approved at the state level. State dominance of gun control legislation has resulted in a rather piecemeal approach to the regulation of guns. The House of Representatives recently approved legislation to close the loophole that allowed Mr. Cho to buy firearms despite a documented history of mental health problems.

Symbolically, the bill was approved on the same day the national report detailing what occurred at Virginia Tech was released. The new legislation, pending approval from the Senate, should help ensure that information about people restricted from purchasing or possessing firearms is contained in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Although gun control legislation occurs in the context of cultural and social tradition and is fueled greatly by conflicting special interest and political beliefs about the role of government regulation, history tells us that countries using strict laws to regulate firearms consistently have lower homicide and violence rates than the United States. Strict gun control might have averted the recent Virginia Tech shootings. However, rational gun control legislation remains one of the nation's best ways to curb aggression and violence.

Aggression and violence in the United States remain vexing problems that require several key responses. First, universal prevention programs and targeted treatment strategies for people at risk of aggressive behavior are needed to address the established link between mental illness and the potential for violence. Sadly, many perpetrators of gun violence are themselves victims of mental illness who find it all too easy to obtain and use firearms. Efficacious interventions that break the potentially dangerous relationship between violence and mental illness should be a public policy priority.

Finally, in an effort to find legislative solutions to regulate firearms effectively, lobbying efforts aimed at sane gun control policies must be a public policy priority. Social work's presence in these efforts should be continued and enhanced.

Child- parent bonding and parenting skills are crucial to stop the ever escalating violence among the youth in this country. The findings reinforce the importance of parental supervision as a protective factor against involvement with antisocial peers.

Credits: Jeffrey M Jenson. Social Work Research. Washington: Sep 2007. Vol. 31, Iss. 3; pg. 131, 4 pgs

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