CINCINNATI—A student kills 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide.
In Arizona, a mass shooting leaves six people dead, including a federal judge, and 13 others wounded, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. A 22-year-old man is arrested at the scene.
In both incidents, there were warning signs of disturbing behavior that led many people to say, in hindsight, that the tragedies could have been avoided. But Scott Bresler, PhD, a forensic psychologist at the University of Cincinnati (UC), says predicting such incidents isn’t as simple as making a list of warning signs and directing someone to treatment if he or she exhibits them.
"‘Warning sign’ is a difficult term,” says Bresler, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience and a member of UC’s Threat Assessment Team. "We may have 100 people who exhibit what some might call a warning sign, and 99 times out of 100 it’s not a warning sign at all because they do nothing.
"But one out of 100 times, you can have somebody who does do something, and—in hindsight—it’s now grown into a ‘warning sign.’”
Bresler stresses that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has studied such incidents at length, and there is no known psychological profile of a school gunman.
"What we’re typically looking for at UC,” Bresler says, "are students or employees who for whatever reason are disruptive—either through their actions or their words. If that level of disruption raises concerns, we try to get someone to speak with that individual to find out where the problems might be emanating from.”
From there, Bresler says, recommended interventions could include counseling or a visit to a family physician or a psychiatrist. Cases that make it to the Threat Assessment Team receive a behavioral analysis that looks at the history of the individual and whether there are behavioral elements or specific aspects of their history which puts them into a heightened classification of risk.
UC’s crisis plan includes a prevention program called Prevention Through Intervention which brings together the responsiveness and expertise of numerous UC services, including the Counseling Center, the Women’s Center and University Judicial Affairs. Concerned members of the UC community are encouraged to call one of the serves if they need advice and support or suspect that someone else may be in distress. Reports may be made anonymously.
A number of problems could suggest that an individual needs help, the program says, including:
· Changes in mood or behavior.
· Outbursts of frustration.
· Talking about death or suicide.
· Threatening statements, direct or veiled, to harm or kill oneself or others.
More information on the Prevention Through Intervention program is available at www.uc.edu/pubsafety/prevention.
"It’s easy to look at a case from a distance and point fingers,” Bresler says. "We have to look at multiple types of variables in each case, then make a determination.
"We have extraordinary resources that we utilize at UC, and it’s our goal to utilize them for the betterment of the people that we’re concerned about and for the betterment of the community at large.”