Last week, the nation witnessed the 223rd school shooting of 2021. According to a study conducted by The Conversation — a news site — classrooms have been especially deadly this year. 2021 has jumped to first place with the most school shootings in U.S. history. But what makes this year different? If we dive deeper than the politics of gun control, we uncover a much darker answer to all of this violence: the mental health crisis plaguing adolescents.
The idea of moving to the corner, barricading the door, and scanning the classroom for makeshift weapons and torniquetes is foreign to anyone outside of our generation. Our “normal” is a world where a loud bang, an unplanned fire drill, or an accidental beep triggers our hearts to drop to our legs. We are forced to constantly fear what feels inevitable, given the sheer number of headlines dedicated to school shootings. All of this is to say how our lives as students in 2021 have changed because of mass shootings. But what are the differences in our lives as American teens that are causing so many mass shootings?
As Ethan Crumbley, the shooter at Oxford High School, was only 15 years old, it’s difficult to write his motive off as a manifestation of pure, unadulterated evil, especially given the disturbing messages pleading for help that he left on his desk. We have to look at Crumbley’s mental deterioration into violence as a symptom of a larger culture of bullying that persists in American high schools.
Behind every school shooting, there are two perpetrators: the shooter and the gun. Dealing with the gun has a clearer cut plan of action than dealing with the shooter. Guns are objects. They lack complexity, emotion, and motive. If we can inspire strong policy change, ideally, we can tame the use of these objects. However, dealing with the shooter solves three of our nation’s most challenging issues at once: social isolation caused by COVID-19, cyberbullying in the age of social media, and the disease of loneliness and depression that has infected most American teenagers.
Most times after a school shooting, it is later revealed that the perpetrator was in some way bullied or had few friends. Though it is impossible to fully understand the motive of a school shooter, EducationCorner credits 75% of school shootings to harassment and bullying. There is an undeniable link between the festering of negative emotions and the rise in frequency of violence. As the magnitude of harassment and depression increases, especially in conjunction with pre-existing mental illness, tragedies like Oxford will become more likely. So, though these connections will always remain somewhat unproven, it is still of utmost importance to address the adolescent bullying and depression problem because it can only do good. Obviously, the mental health crisis I’m describing is amplified by the fact that people struggling have unregulated access to guns. But once again, we have to compartmentalize the gun and the shooter to most effectively tackle the school shooting epidemic.
To say that the average high school experience has changed drastically since our parents were roaming the halls is a categorical understatement. The two changes that stand out the most to me are social media and the pandemic. The pros and cons of social media have been beaten to death, so I won’t get too much into it. Its drawbacks can be summarized as a new hyper-dependence on the phone screen that attempts to provide someone with all of the human and emotional connection of actually being outside with friends. Social media contributes to the problem of teenage loneliness because it creates a false sense of togetherness and community. As this reliance worsens, real social interaction often ceases to exist; in turn, loneliness and depression begin to spiral.
It is impossible to separate America’s recent mental health crisis from the pandemic. As everyone was forced into isolation, we were left with no choice but to rely on these platforms to provide us with the comfort and interaction we missed so dearly. Unfortunately, social media sanctioned loneliness often works in tandem with bullying, as it often facilitates cyber-bullying and spurs the mental health spiral of vulnerable youth. Fortunately for Horace Mann, we have structures in place to counsel those in crisis and report instances of harassment. However, most schools are not lucky enough to have these resources.
No words can encapsulate the tragedy of school shootings. Innocent students continue to lose friends, teachers, or their own lives to these acts of evil. Almost as disturbing is the giant increase in American teens who are struggling so much that they consider harm to themselves and others. Though it’s impossible to identify a list of steps to solve the teenage mental health crisis, we must continue to advocate for destigmatization, distribution of school resources to accurately account for student experiences, and most importantly, zero tolerance against any instance of bullying.
Stand up for what is right because you never know what someone is going through. Let’s stop these tragedies at the source and save countless students, including the shooter themselves.