Here is a guest post from Donn Marshall, a psychologist, authority on student suicide, and associate dean of students at University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Wash.
He discusses the fatal shooting of seven people at a private college in Oakland, Calif. earlier this month.
Like others following the reports of the tragic seven deaths at Oikos University, I struggle to make sense of the senseless. This is an agonizing task, but also an essential task, if we who work and study on campuses are to recognize that such things happen, that it could happen on our campus, and that we must take action to guard against that eventuality.
We will never feel satisfied with explanations of why this shooting occurred, any more than we can be with what happened at Virginia Tech in 2007, at Northern Illinois University in 2008, at the Appalachian School of Law in 2002, and at several other campuses. These will always remain terrifying, in part because we never understand what happened well enough to feel safe.
But that is not to say that we don't have some understanding, imperfect but helpful. As hard as it may be to be empathic with the shooter in this scenario, to develop any comprehension of violent behavior we have to extend ourselves to try to understand the pain the alleged shooter, One Goh, was experiencing.
Three “signs" that an individual may be veering toward violent action against him or herself, or against others, are offered in the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide (Van Orden, et. al, 2010, Psychology Review). These "risk factors" alone could not have predicted this tragedy, although had the pattern been recognized, it might have invited closer scrutiny and monitoring of One Goh as a potential threat.
1. The need to belong runs strong in us all, and the frustrations related to efforts to belong, known as "thwarted belonging," are one key risk factor. From current information, it seems that One Goh may have felt a sense of disconnection with important individuals and communities in his life. Reports say he had been teased by peers for his limited facility with English, that he was at times ignored by peers, that he was dismissed from Oikos, that he bore a grudge against an administrator there, that he had a failed marriage and failed business in Virginia, that he reportedly lost a job because of his temper, and that, within the last 13 months, both a brother and his mother died.
2. A second factor is “acquired capability” or prior planning and rehearsal. Goh's arrival at the Oikos building was planned. He was looking for a specific administrator, and, it seems, he started shooting others when he learned his intended victim was not there. Goh not only had purchased a gun more than a month ago, he knew how to use it. The presence of mind and skill required to handle a weapon, and to reload in the course of shooting other humans is remarkable, but familiar to those who study massacres. Goh had practiced, if only mentally, to the degree that he was able to point, shoot, reload, and repeat without the emotional interference most of us would feel. This suggests an emotional distancing, sometimes recognized by a "thousand yard stare" (a calm, vacant, and unresponsive look).
3. The third key factor is “burdensomeness.” When we feel that we are a burden on those we care about, we are at increased risk for violent or suicidal action. We know that Goh suffered financial setbacks, and reports say he borrowed money from his father to help him try to return to school. It is not hard to imagine that Goh felt he was becoming a burden to family members.
Different people respond to circumstances in different ways. One person might turn pain inward. Another could respond by lashing out violently. There is still much we don't know, but this was not a random act of violence.
In the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, most campuses have stepped up attentiveness to behaviors which might predict increased risk for violence. These efforts are imperfect, but improving. Students can help by being on alert for the above behaviors. Campus administrators can:
1. Appoint a team of faculty and staff (Behavioral Intervention Team or BIT) charged with collecting information about persons of concern, and recommending interventions when needed;
2. Be sure that all members of the BIT have received training, and that the procedures the BIT will follow are clearly articulated;
3. Make support available for all members of the campus community who face life circumstances beyond their capacity to cope effectively;
4. Train faculty and staff about how to find support when they identify students or colleagues who show signs of accumulating stress and poor coping;
5. Be sure campus police or security teams have a strong working relationship with local authorities, and that plans are in place for rapid intervention, should the need arise.
No explanation or understanding of One Goh's actions on April 2, 2012 will feel satisfying, but we are not completely adrift in our ability to identify increased potential for violence. While our hearts go out to the families who lost loved ones, we must also learn from this experience and prepare to act should a threat be identified in our own community.