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If the devastation of the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that governmental ill-preparedness can lead to unnecessary loss of life.
We need a national task force to explore the most effective methods of imparting social and emotional learning to address the mental health needs of students as they return to the classroom.
This is especially important now as the trauma, social isolation and/or disruption in routine associated with the pandemic can result in mental health problems that students may not know how to handle. Their attempts to cope could result in deadly violence.
During the pandemic, gun sales have soared, and mass shootings outside of schools have continued. We must act now to thwart future school shootings, but we must address the problem much differently than in the past.
Before the pandemic erupted in 2020, the number of school shootings already was on track to surpass the number of school shootings in the previous two years — the years with the highest number of shootings on record in the United States (112 in 2019 and 116 in 2018). In 2020, there had already been 29 shootings during the first two-and-a-half months as compared with 20 in 2019.
While gun control laws are necessary, they do not address the root causes of violent behavior.
While studies show most people with mental illness are not violent, a majority of school shooters report mental health problems such as depression and/or suicidal thoughts. One in 5 young people struggles with severe mental health issues, with many others reporting less severe mental health problems. Moreover, 75% of these individuals experiencing mental health issues never receive treatment.
We do have a process, however, through which students can learn to effectively confront and resolve emotional turmoil. Social and emotional learning initiatives aid students in the development of empathy, anger management, impulse control and problem-solving.
Programs that teach students the skills to understand and manage their emotions have been tied to a noteworthy reduction in aggression, which is evident in school shooters. These programs also have seen declines in suspensions and suicidal thoughts, and improvements in emotion regulation and academic outcomes.
When we use social and emotional learning programs, we target everyone, not a particular group or individual. That is, mental health services are made available to individuals who fit the typical school shooter profile, individuals who are unexpected but capable of being shooters and to every other student. Thus, every student is provided mental health tools that are beneficial across the board.
The pandemic and accompanying school closures temporarily paused school shootings. Now, as students physically return to school, we must demonstrate that we are not willing to lose any more innocent lives to school shootings. We must seize that opportunity through implementing social and emotional learning programs.
Agnes Varghese is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in developmental psychology at the University of California, Riverside and works with the university’s Science to Policy Program to translate scientific findings into legislative initiatives.
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