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July 18, 2018
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EARLY MENTAL HEALTH INTERVENTION CAN PREVENT SCHOOL VIOLENCE, SAY PANELISTS

(AUSTIN) — Mental health professionals specializing in adolescent development told members of the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools & School Security Wednesday that the best way to head off relatively isolated incidents of school violence is broad based psychological prevention and treatment for students. Formed in response to the shooting at Santa Fe High School in May, this is the third in a series of interim hearings for the Select Committee as they look for ways to improve school safety in the next Legislative session. Testimony on Wednesday looked at the role of mental health in school violence.

Experts told members that it is very difficult to predict which students might turn into mass shooters. There are 1.9 million children and teenagers with diagnosed mental health disorders, and of those perhaps 20,000 have a diagnosis associated with a slight increase in violent behavior, said Dr. Andy Keller, President and CEO of the Meadows Foundation in Dallas. Of that latter group, he said, less than 1,000 are at a high risk for violent behavior. That doesn't mean these kids are more prone to commit a mass shooting, said Keller, as most school shooters don't have mental health disorders.

Broad access to treatment is the best way to prevent possible mental health-related violence, said Keller. Finding and stopping the next school shooter may be a needle in the haystack, but Keller said that the solution is to "treat the hay". By improving mental health prevention and intervention for all students, you help ones that might be prone to violence as well. "Our predictive ability to identify a mass murderer is very, very low," said Dr. Clifford Moy, Director of Behavioral Health at the TMF Health Quality Institute. "We really should be focusing on the broader group of students who are at-risk, have difficulty in life, have these concerning behaviors that we can intervene and make their lives better."

The committee also considered the role of violent media in the increase in school shootings. Witnesses agreed that there is no direct correlation between violent video games and acts of violence in real life, but one witness told members that there is a positive correlation with aggressive thoughts and behavior. Dr. Iram Kazimi of UTHealth McGovern Medical School at Houston said that when kids are exposed to violent media, it changes the way they perceive how others think about them. They are more likely to interpret others' behavior as aggressive and this leads to a change in thinking. "Unless we start addressing how kids actually think about the world around them, I think we're going to be at a loss," said Kazimi.

Witnesses were nearly unanimous in their suggestions to increase the ability of school officials to identify potential mental health issues in students and get them the treatment they need. Multisystemic therapy, a comprehensive treatment protocol that includes family- and community-based therapy, is a proven method for helping kids with a history of violent behaviors, said Kazimi.

The committee will hold their final hearing next week on Tuesday, July 24. It will present a final report to the full Senate with findings and legislative recommendations before the next Legislative Session begins in January.

Session video and all other Senate webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's Audio/Video Archive.

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