Gunman entering the El Paso Walmart
After massacres in El Paso and Dayton in which 29 people died, President Donald Trump made a number of sensible recommendations to address violence and mass murders in the United States. He has been criticized for not calling for stricter gun controls but his words went to the heart of this crisis of hatred and violence.
We must recognize that the Internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts. We must shine light on the dark recesses of the Internet, and stop mass murders before they start…
We cannot allow ourselves to feel powerless. We can and will stop this evil contagion. In that task, we must honor the sacred memory of those we have lost by acting as one people.
Below are our proposals for aspects of a comprehensive federal plan consistent with the President’s ideas. They are based on our combined 70 years of experience in research, education, and clinical work in uncovering and initiating treatment protocols in schools and in mental health treatment for excessive anger (or what psychiatrists call “irritability”).
Anger-reduction programs. The mental health field needs to develop protocols to identify individuals at risk for severe irritability and violent impulses. Next, empirically-verified treatment plans should be initiated for reducing intense anger and rage. Programs like this are rare in the mental health field.
A Secret Service report published last month, “Mass Attacks in Public Spaces,” found that 67 percent of the suspects displayed symptoms of mental illness or emotional disturbance. In 93 percent, the suspects had a history of threats or other troubling communications.
The mental health field needs to recognize that the training and ongoing education of health professionals has not been strong regarding the identification and treatment of irritability and violent impulses. So it is no surprise that the mass murderers of Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Lakeland, and Columbine had not been treated for their anger. We need training programs. They could be part of required Continuing Education credits for state licensure for psychiatrists, psychologists, and the other physicians who prescribe roughly 80 percent of psychiatric medications.
Our book, Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, published by the American Psychological Association, can be one such training tool for mental health professionals. Forgiveness has been empirically verified to reduce unhealthy anger.
Education in schools. Education programs in schools could uncover and teach youth how to resolve intense anger and desires for revenge that lead to a sense of pleasure in expressing violent acts against others. Dr Enright has worked to establish scientifically-supported programs for reducing anger in youth through forgiveness education curricula (from pre-kindergarten through grade 12). These educational guides have been sought by educators in over 30 countries. Dr Enright’s books, Forgiveness Is a Choice, The Forgiving Life, and 8 Keys to Forgiveness, can be used as anger-reduction tools with older high school students, college students, and adults.
Teach respect for persons. A key development for forgiveness education is a new perspective on humanity: all have inherent worth, even those who act unfairly. In other words, these programs not only reduce anger, and thus eliminate a major motivation to hurt others, but also engender a sense of respect for persons.
This combination of reduced irritability and a new perception of the worth of all could go a long way in reducing rage and thus in reducing mass shootings.
Regulate violent video games. Violent video-gaming and media violence have played a role in the behavior of mass murders. A continual exposure to gaming that denigrates others in a virtual environment is a sure way of damaging respect for persons. Such “games” have courageously been identified by the President as factors in the epidemic of violence. Rather than teaching the importance of mastering anger without hurting others (character education), some games support the expression of rage and violence.
We need Federal laws. Youth are not allowed into movie theaters for X-rated fare. This should be the case with video games, which should be lawfully kept from youth when judged to have content that demonstrates and even encourages excessive anger. Parents should teach their children how to resolve their anger without harming others and should prohibit violent games in their homes. Violent games must have a warning that they could promote uncontrollable anger.
What about the guns? The President has identified essential issues that need to be addressed on the federal level to end the epidemic of massacres by individuals with severe, largely unrecognized and untreated, psychological problems.
While it is essential to try to keep guns out of the hands of those prone to act on their hatred, more important is the establishment of new anger control programs which will make for a safer America.
Robert Enright is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Board Member of the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. Rick Fitzgibbons MD is a psychiatrist in Conshohocken PA. They are joint recipients of the 2019 Expanded Reason Award, presented by the University Francisco de Vitoria (Madrid) in collaboration with the Vatican Foundation Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.