From school shootings to everyday counter-terrorism

CC Licensed Image from Secretive Ireland. Click for source.Mother Jones has a fascinating article on how America is attempting to stop school shootings by using community detection and behavioural intervention programmes for people identified as potential killers – before a crime has ever been committed.

It is a gripping read in itself but it is also interesting because it describes an approach that is now been rolled out to millions as part of community counter-terrorism strategies across the world, which puts a psychological model of mass-violence perpetration at its core.

The Mother Jones article describes a threat assessment model for school shootings that sits at an evolutionary mid-point: first developed to protect the US President, then to preventing school shootings, and now as mass deployment domestic counter-terrorism programmes.

You can see exactly this in the UK Government’s Prevent programme (part of the wider CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy). Many people will recognise this in the UK because if you work for a public body, like a school or the health service, you will have been trained in it.

The idea behind Prevent is that workers are trained to be alert to signs of radicalisation and extremism and can pass on potential cases to a multi-disciplinary panel, made up of social workers, mental health specialists, staff members and the police, who analyse the case in more detail and get more information as it’s needed.

If they decide the person is vulnerable to becoming dangerously radicalised or violent, they refer the case on the Channel programme, which aims to manage the risk by a combination of support from social services and heightened monitoring by security services.

A central concept is that the person may be made vulnerable to extremism due to unmet needs (poor mental health, housing, lack of opportunity, poor social support, spiritual emptiness, social conflict) which may convert into real world violence when mixed with certain ideologies or beliefs about the world that they are recruited into, or persuaded by, and so violence prevention includes both a needs-based and a threat-based approach.

This approach came from work by the US Secret Service in the 1990s, who were mainly concerned with protecting key government officials, and it was a radical departure from the idea that threat management was about physical security.

They began to try and understand why people might want to attempt to kill important officials and worked on figuring out how to identify risks and intervene before violence was ever used.

The Mother Jones article also mentions the LAPD Threat Management Unit (LAPDTMU) which was formed to deal with cases of violent stalking of celebrities, and the FBI had been developing a data-driven approach since the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) launched in 1985.

By the time the Secret Service founded the National Threat Assessment Center in 1998, the approach was well established. When the Columbine massacre occurred the following year, the same thinking was applied to school shootings.

After Columbine, reports were produced by both the FBI (pdf) and the Secret Service (pdf) which outline some of the evolution of this approach and how it applies to preventing school shootings. The Mother Jones article illustrates what this looks like, more than 15 years later, as shootings are now more common and often directly inspired by Columbine or other more recent attacks.

It’s harder to find anything written on the formal design of the UK Goverment’s Prevent and Channel programmes but the approach is clearly taken from the work in the United States.

The difference is that it has been deployed on a mass scale. Literally, millions of public workers have been trained in Prevent, and Channel programmes exist all over the country to receive and evaluate referrals.

It may be one of the largest psychological interventions ever deployed.
 

Link to Mother Jones article on preventing the next mass shooting.

The Quiet Room

This month’s British Journal of Psychiatry has a brief but fascinating article about a 1979 Marvel comic featuring and written by rock legend Alice Cooper which depicts his real-life admission to a psychiatric ward.

The comic was timed to coincide with the release of his concept album From The Inside which describes his experiences as a psychiatric patient being treated for severe alcoholism and depression.

He was there for 3 months and in the comic he depicts the patients, doctors and nurses he met during his admission. Alice has often commented in interviews that treatment in hospital and recovering from his substance misuse saved his life, when many similar artists at that time, such as Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, were not as fortunate, succumbing to their addictions. The lead single from the album was ‘How You Gonna See Me Now’, a song describing the anxiety the singer felt coming back home to his wife after his stay in hospital and facing the stigma of being treated for his mental illness. It went on to become a well-known successful ballad. The comic can still be found in comic shops or through online auction sites.

 

Link to brief British Journal of Psychiatry article.

Hold infinity in the palms of your hand

CC Licensed image from Wikipedia. Click for imageA rare documentary about three people who have had hallucinatory and profound revelatory experiences is now available online.

Those Who Are Jesus examines the borders between revelation and psychosis and hears people recount their intense experiences while looking at how they can be understood in terms of sociology, neuropsychiatry, religion and radical mental health.

Julian believes he has been shown Jacob’s Ladder, how a universe is created and told his soul is Time itself.

Sadat says a vision of an angel said to him: “You were Jesus Christ before and you were raised to life again and you are Jesus Christ”

It’s a great non-judgemental documentary that looks at what happens when intense and idiosyncratic experience intrude on everyday life.
 

Link to Those Who Are Jesus on Vimeo.
Link to info about the documentary.

Wanted: political diversity in social psychology

A fascinating article on why social psychology needs more political diversity is due to be published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Sadly the full article is locked behind a paywall but the abstract gives an excellent summary of the article and the wider problem itself.

Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science.

Duarte JL, Crawford JT, Stern C, Haidt J, Jussim L, Tetlock PE.
Behav Brain Sci. 2014 Jul 18:1-54. [Epub ahead of print]

Psychologists have demonstrated the value of diversity-particularly diversity of viewpoints-for enhancing creativity, discovery, and problem solving. But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in academic psychology in general and social psychology in particular: political diversity. This article reviews the available evidence and finds support for four claims:

1) Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years;

2) This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike;

3) Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking; and

4) The underrepresentation of non-liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination.

We close with recommendations for increasing political diversity in social psychology.

As the article notes there is considerable evidence that social diversity is beneficial on many levels for numerous types of social groups.

This is widely believed in social science and community work except when it comes to political opinion where many believe that non-liberal views are incompatible with this type of work, when clearly they are not. This affects the field to the point where people are seemingly prepared to actively discriminate against non-liberals.

The defence of diversity matters most when you are defending the inclusion of people with whom you disagree or who make you uncomfortable. And we will all be better off as a result.
 

Link to PubMed entry for article.

Context Is the New Black

The New Yorker has one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the Stanford prison experiment – the notorious and mythologised study that probably doesn’t tell us that we ‘all have the potential to be monsters’.

It’s a study that’s often taught as one of the cornerstones of psychology and like many foundational stories, it has come to serve a purpose beyond what we can confidently conclude from it.

Was the study about our individual fallibility, or about broken institutions? Were its findings about prisons, specifically, or about life in general? What did the Stanford Prison Experiment really show?

The appeal of the experiment has a lot to do with its apparently simple setup: prisoners, guards, a fake jail, and some ground rules. But, in reality, the Stanford County Prison was a heavily manipulated environment, and the guards and prisoners acted in ways that were largely predetermined by how their roles were presented. To understand the meaning of the experiment, you have to understand that it wasn’t a blank slate; from the start, its goal was to evoke the experience of working and living in a brutal jail.

It’s a great piece that I can probably do little to add to here, so you’re best off reading it in full.
 

Link to The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Hallucinating children

CC Licensed Photo by Flickr user Tali Le Bamba. Click for source.I’ve got an article in The Observer about childhood hallucinations which are much more common than we previously imagined.

You tend to get one of two reactions when you discuss children hallucination: that’s obvious – children live in a fantasy world, or that’s horrendous – there must be something very wrong with them.

The answer is that neither response is particularly accurate. Children’s fantasies are not the same as hallucinations but neither are they normally a sign of something ‘going wrong’ – although certain forms of hallucinations can suggest a more serious problem.

Hallucinations often reflect a bizarre, blurry version of our realities and because play is an everyday reality for children, the content can seem similar. Both can contain quirky characters, strange scenarios and inspire curious behaviour. One child described how he saw a wolf in the house, another that he had “Yahoos” living inside him that ate all his medicine. On the surface, these could just as easily be a child’s whimsy, but genuine hallucinations have a very different flavour. “In play and make-believe, children are imagining,” says Elena Garralda, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Imperial College London. “They do not have the actual perceptual experience of seeing and hearing.” Another key difference, notes Garralda, is that “hallucinations feel imposed and children cannot exercise a direct control over them”.

There’s more on these fascinating experiences in the full article linked below.
 

Link to ‘Childhood hallucinations are surprisingly common – but why?’

A less hysterical reaction

CC Licensed photo by Flickr user Les Black. Click for source.There’s a fascinating article in The Guardian about one of the least understood aspects of human nature: experiences like blindness, paralysis and seizures that seem to mimic gross damage to the nervous system but aren’t explained by it. People can experience profound blindness, for example, but have no detectable damage to their visual system.

These difficulties have various names: conversion disorder, hysteria, dissociative disorder, medically unexplained symptoms, functional neurological symptoms, somatoform disorder, or are denoted by adding the word ‘functional’ or ‘psychogenic’ to the disability.

The original concept, usually falsely attributed to Freud but actually first suggested by French psychologist Pierre Janet, was that emotional disturbance was being expressed as a physical problem, potentially as a form of psychological defence mechanism.

This is the origin of one of the modern names – ‘conversion disorder’ – but it’s not clear that ’emotion being converted into a physical symptom’ is a good explanation. We do know, however, that these experiences are more likely in people with a history of trauma, stress or emotional difficulties.

Crucially, people affected by these conditions feel no voluntary control over their symptoms – they’re not faking – but if you understand the nervous system you can often see how the symptoms aren’t consistent with the disabilities they appear to mimic.

For example, in the article, the neurologist tests a patient’s blindness like so:

He took from his bag a small rotating drum painted in black and white stripes. He held it in front of Yvonne and spun it quickly. Her eyes flickered from side to side in response to it, involuntarily drawn to the spinning stripes.

If the patient was blind due to damage to the eye, retina or optic nerve, visual material wouldn’t cause an involuntary eye tracking response, because the visual information would never make it to the brain.

So strikingly, the visual information is clearly being perceived at one level but is not accessible to the conscious mind – and it is this dramatic dissociation between the conscious and unconscious which is at the core of the problem, and is so poorly understood.

Unfortunately, these problems have also been traditionally stigmatised within medicine with people affected by them sometimes treated as fakers or time-wasters.

Similarly, to patients, the problems often feel as if “something has gone wrong with their bodies” meaning it can be difficult to hear that the origin may be psychological – partly of course, due to the common misconception that ‘psychological’ means ‘under your control’.

So this is why The Guardian article is so interesting because it is a little discussed area that needs a wider understanding both clinically and scientifically.

It describes several people with exactly these difficulties and how they are experienced.

Apparently, it’s taken from a new book by the same neurologist which is entirely about ‘functional neurological symptoms’ which could be equally as interesting.
 

Link to ‘You think I’m mad?’ – the truth about psychosomatic illness.