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Prevention, intervention are core of helping young, troubled minds

 “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, because in Connecticut this type of system is actually already set in place, we have all the players,” Dr. David Bernsten said. “What my goal is is to expand the umbrella, educate them and coach them up, because there’s a lot of specific training needed to make this process work.”

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, because in Connecticut this type of system is actually already set in place, we have all the players,” Dr. David Bernsten said. “What my goal is is to expand the umbrella, educate them and coach them up, because there’s a lot of specific training needed to make this process work.”

Know who your child is, not who he or she was.

That was the message Dr. David Bernstein delivered at a four-person panel discussion about recognizing the warning signs of mental illness in adolescents, which the League of Women Voters hosted last Thursday at the Schlumberger auditorium.

“Most of us want to focus on who our kid was in that picture you have sitting on your desk, but that is based on old data,” Dr. Bernstein said. “We often describe our child as the way he or she was at the age of 8 or 9, but that is not the same kid who sits in front of you now, so I stress to you to know who your kid is.

“Most parents have a mixed image of who their children were and who they are now.”

Throughout his hour-and-a-half PowerPoint presentation, “Young, Troubled Minds,” the forensic psychologist encouraged parents to trust their children.

“Trust, but verify that trust through monitoring them,” he said. “They are an extremely high-risk age. In adolescence, your kid has one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood. It’s a very strange time period.”

He debunked myths about school shooters — the biggest that they can be predicted based on a pattern. He favored prevention and intervention through the creation of “threat assessment teams” that collect data and screen for behavioral red flags before giving the information to a central person who “converges the validity of the reports.”

He said there was an acute difference between profiling — “what we see on TV” — and screening for red flags — “a behavior that could lead to a pattern that is threatening.”

Most of the information screened and processed will come from kids’ saying something unintentional at the spur of the moment, Dr. Bernstein said. Every incident should be investigated, and school systems need a designated person who “knows all the information and can connect all the dots.” He cited the example of Virginia Tech, where many people knew the shooter and saw signs of trouble, but no one person was informed enough to realize the danger.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, because in Connecticut this type of system is actually already set in place, we have all the players,” Dr. Bernsten said. “What my goal is is to expand the umbrella, educate them and coach them up, because there’s a lot of specific training needed to make this process work.”

However, the schools often don’t know what is going on in a child’s family life and computer use. These are the parents’ realm.

When discussing a child’s use of the Internet, he deemed parents as “technological immigrants,” while the kids are “technological natives.”

“This is their terrain and they can find so much” on the Internet, said Dr. Bernstein. “I’ve had subjects give me links to websites where you can make all sorts of bombs from scratch — it’s all out there.”

“Threat assessment is an opportunity all parents should allow to happen, because parents need to advocate for their children,” he said. “If they don’t, the child will advocate for themselves.”

He felt that all the parents of young school shooters “would have given anything in the world for an opportunity to intervene for their child, to advocate for them when the kid was too sad, too passive to do it.”

Dr. Bernstein said research and personal experience in the field has led him to narrow the list of motivations behind school violence to three factors: disenfranchisement through victimization and bullying, depression and suicidal thoughts, and access to weapons.

“The phrase ‘perception is reality’ is always true to the person being bullied, so the discussion of whether or not a kid is perceiving himself as a victim or actually is a victim is meaningless,” Dr. Bernstein said. “To the victim, it’s all the same, and the difference isn’t what you see; rather, it’s what you don’t see. These kids are usually passive and they don’t let any of this go, they collect it and store it until they can’t hold it anymore, and that’s what we have to watch for.”

The stockpiling effect of bullying on a child is too often not addressed, he said. Many school officials and parents believe bullying in middle school is a rite of passage. However, this attitude ignores the fact that bullying can continue year after year as children move to higher grades.

He cited data from the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime that 75% of perpetrators of school violence felt bullied, persecuted or threatened. The other major motive for violence was revenge, which was listed at 61%. The desire for attention is often hyped as a bigger reason behind school violence, Dr. Bernstein said, but according to the data, it is the motive in only 24% of cases.

Citing Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two shooters responsible for 13 deaths at Columbine, he said 80% of school shooters intend to commit to suicide — “beware of the man with nothing to lose.”

“Testimony from students and faculty inside the school during the shooting said they were laughing while shooting, and I think that’s really relevant to understanding not only them, but the mentality of school shooters as a whole,” Dr. Bernstein said. “They knew this was the end, and they were happy they had found a way out. Unfortunately, that way out took the lives of 13 others.”

Addressing the issue of access to guns,  Dr. Bernstein said, “Kids love guns and associate this lifelong message of ‘Be a Man!’ with knowing how to access, load and fire a gun.”

“Now, I’m not here to say you shouldn’t own a gun,” he said. “However, the common denominator of all these shooting cases is an interest and access to firearms, and that stems back to the mentality of having power through weaponry and firing off a gun.”

Superintendent of Schools Deborah Low, pediatrician Dr. Tom Cigno, the co-founder of Project Resilience, and Maj. Steve Brown of the Ridgefield Police Department answered questions from the crowd, following Mr. Bernstein’s presentation.

When asked what challenges the schools have been facing since the Sandy Hook shooting and what they are doing to prevent violence, Ms. Low described the “delicate balancing act” schools face on a daily basis because of confidentiality laws.

“There’s a lot of legislation that dictates what a school can share and what they can’t share,” Ms. Low said. “Usually it’s for a good reason, but after Newtown we have to revise our strategy and go in with more of a connecting-the-dots mentality, like the one Dr. Bernstein touched on. We can’t be working in silence anymore.”

She plans to recommend to state legislators that they correct the language of confidentiality laws to allow schools to do more with at-risk youth.

In addition, she said, all the schools have psychologists, and a program named “Hands Up” has been implemented and designed for teachers to work as a team to evaluate every single student in the grade and to ensure that “no kid is falling through the cracks.”

She urged both parents and teachers to stress the negative effects of bullying, and also to exemplify why being a bystander to bullying is just as bad as being the perpetrator.

“Eliminating the bystander effect is key and something we are working on at the school level, but parents need to report, document and investigate anything they hear about their child, even if their kid isn’t directly involved in an incident,” Ms. Low said.

Dr. Cigno addressed questions surrounding his practice’s unique screening method for teens and whether he feels that children are receiving mental health screenings at an early enough age.

He said that in his 20 years of practice before implementing his new strategy he was asking the wrong questions. Now, he said, he is starting to catch kids a lot earlier in the stages of depression.

Due to the “eye-opening” rise of childhood anxiety, depression and drug abuse in town, Dr. Cigno co-founded Project Resilience two years ago. He believes his program’s effectiveness depends on a lot of different factors.

“Resilience is the essential ingredient, but depression stems from a lot of different factors — it’s a combination of genetics, temperament and the different stages of life, such as the cognitive learning stage,” Dr. Cigno said. “We all want happiness and success for our kids, but the truth is that a lot of things have to go right for this to happen.”

He said the screenings are different, based on age, but almost all of his child clients allow him to confide with their parents after the session is completed. Dr. Cigno believes there must be a more uniform policy among the different systems — schools, government, doctors, police —  that can harbor an effective prevention strategy.

Echoing the previous two speakers, Maj. Brown said the police’s greatest challenge is not being allowed to share important information because of state confidentiality laws.

“Obviously, we can act when someone has reached the criminal level, but there needs to be something that allows us to communicate amongst other professionals in the field such as the schools and the doctors,” Maj. Brown said. “This needs to be a team effort; there’s no single entity that can prevent it from happening.”

He said the Ridgefield police have had a student resource officer program for more than a dozen years and have had a DARE anti-drug program in elementary and middle schools since the 1980s. He believes the police must maintain a positive interaction with students at all levels in the school district.

Audience members applauded the police efforts to engage their children and serve as role models to them. However, one person wanted to know about the possibility of metal detectors in schools to help prevent violence.

Dr. Bernstein said metal detectors were impractical and would deter a perpetrator from enacting violence only in school, but would leave school buses and parking lots equally or more vulnerable. Dr. Bernstein, a member of the staff of Forensic Consultants LLC in Norwalk, has been hired by the school district as a safety consultant.

“What happened in Newtown could have happened anywhere,” he said. “I don’t know where we could have intervened with the shooter. So there comes a point where we have to assume some risk, and that’s unfortunate.”

“However,” Dr. Bernstein added, “I am confident that if we continue to rally around these vulnerable kids and support them, and most importantly, if we show them not to marginalize, not to exclude, not to bully, then they will follow our examples.”

About author
Award-winning journalist for Hersam Acorn Newspapers. Covers beats such as education, police and fire, planning, real estate, and business in the town of Ridgefield. Also covers sports and hosts a radio show, Radio Arts and Leisure, that runs on the company's 18 individual news websites. University of Denver graduate, die-hard Bronco and Yankee fan. Sports lover and compulsive traveler.

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