Published February 28, 2012
It seems likely now, just one day after the school shooting in Chardon, Ohio, that this tragedy–like many others in which killers post warnings about their intentions – may well have been preventable.
On December 30, T.J. Lane, the suspect in the Chardon High School shootings posted a piece of writing to his Facebook account that could have led someone – whether a relative or a friend or merely an acquaintance – to consider him dangerous and bring him to the attention of the police and/or mental health professionals. There is no evidence at this point, that that intervention occurred.
The suspect wrote, "I am Death. And you have always been the sod. So repulsive and so odd."
He also wrote, "Feel death, not just mocking you. Not just stalking you, but inside of you. Wriggle and writhe. Feel smaller beneath my might . . . . Die all of you."
He also reportedly sent out a message via Twitter indicating that Monday would be a day when people at school suffered.
Obviously, public declarations of this kind are not always bluster, not always the overheated ramblings of a chaotic, but, ultimately, harmless person. They are sometimes a statement of intention – whether fueled by pure vengeance or by psychosis. And the fact that people seem not to have acted on them (which is common), reveals a blind spot in the way we think about extreme and bizarre communication and behavior: We tend to deny it or believe we are powerless to respond to it.
I believe the denial is linked to a psychological game of probabilities, combined with a cost/benefit analysis, which all unfolds unconsciously. Our minds calculate the likelihood of a psychological thriller playing out across the street or in our very school system as close to zero (which, in fact, is true, in this case, given that a total of eight deaths in school shootings occurred in the entire country last year).
Our minds then quickly assesses how much effort would be required to respond as if that rare scenario were truly unfolding. In this case, the effort may have been perceived as very great, since it would require figuring out who should be alerted to the suspect's writings, labeling him as potentially unstable and homicidal, making that case effectively, perhaps being doubted or dismissed and, potentially, incurring the wrath of the individual and/or his family.
To combat this unconscious and, ultimately, paralyzing calculus, we need to educate the general public to these core facts:
1) Many people who are going to attempt to kill themselves or others do indeed talk about it or write about it first.
2) Speaking or writing of killing others in anything but a harmless, throwaway turn of phrase (in jest) or in a work of fiction is never normal and always indicates that the person speaking needs to be stopped.
3) Mental illness leading to death, whether suicide or homicide, is not rare.
4) Even though you may not be able to forecast how prevention strategies will change events, that does not mean you should not set such strategies in motion.
What to do next
How would a person intervene? Here's how:
1) Alert one "authority" to your concern. This might include a school guidance counselor or a local police department.
2) In addition to alerting that authority, report your concern to a mental health professional at a local hospital emergency room or a community mental health center. Such individuals are duty-bound to assess whether to literally bring people in for psychological evaluations against their will, whether to restrict a person's access to guns and whether to hospitalize a person against his or her will on a locked psychiatric unit.
Don't worry that you will be sued by the person you try to help in this way. Well-intentioned reporting of such concerns does not lead to legal judgments against reporters. Don't worry that you are unnecessarily stigmatizing the person you are reporting. Bearing witness to anyone who speaks or writes about an intention to kill must be an add-water-and-stir moment of clarity and simplicity; you hear it or read it, and you act on it, every, single time. Consider any time you are exposed to such alarming communication as an opportunity to literally save a life, not as a risky moment when you will be viewed as foolish for being worried.
Just being aware of the human tendency to dismiss real and ominous threats can free you to defeat that denial, to do the right thing and, possibly, to save lives.
Dr. Ablow is the author of "Inside the Mind of Casey Anthony." He is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at email@example.com. His team of Life Coaches can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.