Experts note connection between adverse childhood experiences, mass shooters

This article was originally published by La Crosse Tribune

In the aftermath of the recent trio of gun massacres in the United States, social workers, psychologists and researchers in La Crosse and nationwide are calling attention to the effects of adverse childhood experiences, trauma in their formative years appearing to be a commonality among many mass shooters.

Lacie Ketelhut, trauma-informed care community coordinator at Gundersen Health System, has been a prominent local voice in spreading awareness about the lasting impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), with neglect and exposure to abuse or extreme family conflict making a permanent imprint on an individual’s psyche and negatively affecting their health.

Cognitive and neurobiological research has found toxic stress may have the ability to alter brain development, impairing prefrontal cortex functioning and responses to psychosocial stressors, increasing inflammation levels or causing gene modifications.

When she heard about the series of shootings in Gilroy, Calif., El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, all carried out by young men, Ketelhut says the concept of ACEs immediately came to mind.

While much is still to be known about the backgrounds of each of the shooters, the landmark CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study and those that followed have proven that youth exposed to harrowing family and community experiences — including bullying or the suicide of a parent — experience toxic stress, one consequence being a proclivity of violent behaviors.

“We can’t neglect (ACEs) as part of the conversation,” Ketelhut says. “Looking at this through the ACEs lens allows us to zoom out — what happens between being an innocent baby to becoming an adult making the decision to commit mass violence? (ACEs are) not an excuse for violence, but can we examine the problem better and what happens before the problem starts and look at and recognize the signs and symptoms and respond.”

Jane Ellen Stevens, founder of ACES Too High, wrote in a online post that “I’d bet that the shooters’ ACE scores were pretty high,” and Dr. Jillian Peterson and Dr. James Densley, founders of The Violence Project in St. Paul, penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times addressing their work on the Mass Shooter Database, a project funded by the National Institute of Justice, and the duos’ study of every mass shooting since 1966.

For their research, Peterson and Densley interviewed perpetrators, family members, shooting survivors and first responders, as well as scouring manifestos, media coverage, suicide notes, medical history and trial transcripts. Their findings showed four similarities among shooters, as stated in the op-ed:

  • The vast majority of shooters experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. The nature of their exposure included parental suicide, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and/or severe bullying. The trauma was often a precursor to mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, thought disorders or suicidality.
  • Practically every mass shooter had reached an identifiable crisis point in the weeks or months leading up to the shooting. They often had become angry and despondent because of a specific grievance.
  • Most of the shooters had studied the actions of other shooters and sought validation for their motives … in the age of 24-hour rolling news and social media, there are scripts to follow that promise notoriety in death. Societal fear and fascination with mass shootings partly drives the motivation to commit them.
  • The shooters all had the means to carry out their plans (most teen shooters used a weapon owned by a family members, with workplace shooters typically using a legally obtained gun).

Specific to school shooters, Peterson and Densley found 45 percent had experienced or witnessed childhood trauma, and 77 percent had mental health concerns, and The American Academy of Pediatrics has called adverse childhood experiences “the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.”

Early detection and intervention is key to minimizing the health, mental and behavioral effects of ACEs, with signs including depression, isolation, talking about violence, idolizing violent offenders, anxiety or dramatic shifts in behavior. Afflictive or tragic outcomes happen “when we don’t respond and we don’t see the symptoms,” Ketelhut says.

In June 2018, La Crosse mental health specialists, educators and nonprofit representatives introduced a “kaleidoscope” model to trauma informed care, which emphasizes treating the whole person and asking “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?” The approach is three-pronged:

Disrupting the cycle:

  • Reduce risk of childhood exposure to trauma through prevention and early intervention.

Strengthening resilience:

  • Enhance protective factors to help people bounce back and reduce risk for poor health outcomes.

Restoring lives:

  • Integrate accessible and effective supports that foster healing and recovery.

In their op-ed, Peterson and Densley, say proactiveness in schools, places of worship and workplaces is crucial. Discussing mental health, sharing resources and reporting concerns, even when they may prove to be unfounded, are necessary among all members of a community.

“Proactivity needs to extend also to the traumas in early life that are common to so many mass shooters,” Peterson and Densley wrote. “Those early exposures to violence need addressing when they happen with ready access to social services and high-quality, affordable mental health treatment in the community. School counselors and social workers, employee wellness programs, projects that teach resilience and social emotional learning, and policies and practices that decrease the stigma around mental illness will not just help prevent mass shootings, but will also help promote the social and emotional success of all Americans.”

Last summer, the Better Together Project from Great Rivers United Way hosted a screening and discussion of “Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope,” a documentary on ACEs, and Ketelhut says another public information session is being planned.

“We need to be having a conversation at the neighborhood level, really asking the community to step up and look at how we treat each other and how we support each other,” Ketelhut said. “We all want solutions and we all want to walk towards them together.”