South Florida school shooting raises questions on state’s mental health issues, needs

February 18, 2018

Following Wednesday’s shooting in Parkland, Fla., parties from both sides of the political aisle, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, children’s rights professionals and students from the around the state have voiced concerns regarding gun control legislation, mental health issues, education policies and law enforcement protocols.


The Palm Beach Atlantic University community has plenty to say as well.


“When I first heard about it I was at youth group,” said Master’s of Divinity student Kevin Wolz. “I was glad that it wasn’t the school of any of my youth. I’m frustrated by the same response that happens every time, [particularly] on social media.”


Wolz works with the youth ministry at Belvedere Baptist Church, located in West Palm Beach.


Counseling Dr. Gene Sale said the increase in stress has created an increase in behavioral problems in children and young adults, especially violent incidents like the one this week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.


“Chronic stress creates an incubation for this kind of action,” Sale said. “For years I’ve been advocating for [mental health] assessments for students at risk of acting out.”


Sale has worked in the behavioral health field since 1982. Some of those years he specialized in working with adolescents, juvenile delinquents and their families at a residential treatment center in Manassas, Virginia. Other years he worked in providing Christian counseling services. Sale has worked in higher education for 22 years, and 17 of those years have been at PBA.


“There are events in the psychological community we call adverse childhood experiences. There are 10 categories, including three kinds of abuse and two kinds of neglect, physical and emotional,” Sale said. The other categories, he said, include violence in the home and parental dysfunction.


In terms of the Stoneman Douglas High shooter Nikolas Cruz, he suffered many of these experiences. Sale points out major factors are that Cruz was adopted, he experience isolation in social contexts and both of his adoptive parents died.


Social media plays a large role in American society that can foster severe feelings of isolation.


“Isolation is a big part that creates the mindset of a person feeling threatened,” Sale said. “When someone is isolated from society and personal interaction [via social media] it narrows one’s worldview so that they develop the inability to interact with worldviews different from their own.”


Sale also explained domestic violence incidents correlate with violent outbursts.


According to the Broward County Sheriff’s office, police visited Cruz’s house over 30 times during the span of seven years for acts against his mother or brother, and violent threats.


When it comes to preventing mass shooting incidents in the state, Sale said creating and enforcing stricter gun laws, addressing mental health concerns among children and young adults and working with schools and law enforcement agencies are all key.


Although he said it takes a high degree of cooperation in many entities for that to work, people know that cooperation is an issue. But the fact that many of these organizations and agencies are compartmentalized makes rolling out effective measures difficult.


Sale, who worked on Capitol Hill in the late 1980s on the Select Committee on Children and Families, said politicians’ inability to reach a consensus regarding any kind of legislation around mass shootings also goes back to one’s inability to interact with other world views. A social media world, according to Sale, has actually narrowed America’s environment, creating severe polarization on both sides of the aisle.

But the societal and psychological consequences of school violence and mass shootings extend past Capitol Hill.


According to Sale, these incidences create higher levels of anxiety and fear for people around the country, and in the case of this week, students and families in Broward and Palm Beach Counties.


“I have been more alert and aware of my surroundings, and knowing who I’m with,” said junior international business major Simari Turner.


Junior psychology major Lia Thornton said she heard of the incident from a friend who knew someone involved.


“I think we all felt a pit in our stomach [on Wednesday],” Thornton said. I didn’t really have any thoughts about it at first.”


Thornton describes a state of shock that could be felt around the country.


Sale describes this as vicarious trauma, something he said happens to people when they see horrific events in the news or through those they know.


It creates a chronic stress level in individuals even if they haven’t directly experienced the traumatic event], Sale said.


Governor Rick Scott is working with state legislators to tackle violence in schools.


On Thursday he spoke with CNN saying, “Everything's on the table. I'm going to look at every way that we can make sure our kids are safe.”


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