Healing Comes from Correctly Understanding the Problem
The nation is understandably reeling after two of the worst mass shootings in its history, one in Buffalo, New York, and another in Uvalde, Texas, just ten days apart. Unfortunately, these shootings are not new. Fortunately, neither are the solutions.
I had the rare opportunity as a psychiatrist to participate in the World Health Organization’s launch of its World Report on Violence and Health exactly two decades ago. This document had the effect of revolutionizing violence prevention worldwide through a public health approach. It became a call to action by all nations and international organizations to use science and scholarship to prevent, not just react to, violence. Since applying an ecological model to violence, we discovered that social, cultural, economic, and environmental factors are far more reliable predictors of violence than individual factors. To try to predict violent behavior in individuals is a fool’s errand, since when and how violence occurs is almost accidental, and even the most violent offenders are not violent most of the time. Meanwhile, probability across a society is more precise, and rates of violence in a population are almost entirely predictable and preventable.
Indeed, 30 years of intensive research have revealed a great deal to us about what prevents violence. Much like the containment of infectious disease, responsiveness to science-based measures can be impressive and almost immediate, capable of bringing down epidemics of violence.
Mental health is integral to this picture. It is also critical because the greatest threat of our time, nuclear and environmental violence, are amounting to a collective suicidal tendency. Distinguishing us from all other animals, and our time from all other periods in history, human violence has reached a point where it will be the first species on earth to have the potential to bring about its own extinction. Because of the destructive power of the weapons that we have developed, and the extent to which we can alter our environment so as to throw our entire ecosystem off-balance, our decisions can have enormous — indeed terminal — consequences.
What 25 years of researching violence has taught me is that violence is a societal disorder. While individual characteristics predict little about violence, societal characteristics predict precisely where and when epidemics of violence are likely to occur. It takes a violent…