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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Adolescent Mass Murderers: 10 Warning Signs

On 4/8/14, 16-year-old Alex Hribal is alleged to have stabbed 21 people in school with kitchen knives in Murrysville Pennsylvania. As of now, not much is known about Hribal’s past except that he has been described as a loner by some peers (although his attorney denies this).

As it turns out, however, this is the main characteristic of adolescent mass murderers. Peers who have been interviewed to date have said they are unaware of Hribal being bullied. Law enforcement officials have said that his social media presence was minimal and that he does not appear to have owned a cell phone.

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When events like this occur, especially when they lead to murder, people naturally try to understand why. What follows are 10 characteristics of 34 male adolescent (ages 11 to 19) mass murderers (intentionally killing 3 or more victims) between 1958 and 1988 based on the work of Meloy and colleagues (2001). Although Hribal cannot be classified as a mass murderer at this time, this easily could have happened given the critical condition status of 4 of the victims. Some of the characteristics below are accompanied by my own editorial comments and may not necessarily reflect the thinking of Meloy and colleagues.

1. Most (70%) are described as loners. Peers may consider the person an outcast, which can cause and/or reinforce the loner status. When one is a loner, by definition, they are less attached to others around them. When one is less attached to those around them, emotional barriers are removed that would normally prevent seriously harming others. School officials must do a better job at identifying loners and trying to better socially engage them.

2. In 62% of cases, the adolescent was known to abuse substances, including alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamine, LSD, PCP, inhalants, and heroin. In my experience, this is often due to the adolescent using drugs as way to escape personal emotional pain.

3. In 59% of cases, there was some type of precipitating event (hours or days before the murder) that was significantly emotionally disturbing to the perpetrator or was obvious when reviewing the social history. Examples include but are not limited to a real or fantasized loss of a relationship with a girl, family dispute (see point X below), school suspension, bullying (see point X), or being fired from a job.

4. In 58% of cases, the adolescent made some type of threat regarding mass murder to a third party, usually days or months before the killings. 44% discussed murder with at least one person before the event. This is why it is important for parents to monitor their children’s social media accounts and to alert school officials about any alarming statements.

5. In 48% of cases, the adolescent was known to be preoccupied with war or weapons. Examples include but are not limited to owning a large amount of weapons, owning many materials related to violent themes, frequent trips to shooting ranges, grandiose fantasies about war and weapons, infatuation with Nazi regalia or street gangs, and idealization of fictionalized or non-fictionalized violent characters or people.

6. In 46% of cases, the adolescent had been arrested in the past and 42% had a history of violence against another personal, animal, or property. As of this time, Hribal is not known to have a violent past.

7. Many (43%) were bullied. Peers thus far interviewed have stated that they were not aware of Hribal being bulled. This does not mean he was not bullied, of course. Regardless, it is a reason why anti-bullying programs must continue in school.

8. Many (44%) were “fantasziers” in that they had a daily pre-occupation with fantasy games, books, or hobbies. Violent fantasies were common, which is why when I evaluate adolescents I look for these themes when discussing their interests. What kind of video games do they like (e.g., all first person shooters?)? What kind of books, TV shows, movies and music do they like? If they all center around violence, this could indicate a problem. Of course, the vast majority of adolescents who play fantasy games or violent video games do not become mass murderers but when this is combined with the other factors discussed, it increases cause for concern.

9. Many (37%) come from broken families where the parents are separated or divorced. This can result in anger, exposure to more family disputes (before or after the separation/divorce), decreased emotional attachment, and fewer adults present to detect when something is going awry with their child. Hribal is reported to come from a close family, however.

10. Weapon of choice: Most (85%) use a gun, with the most common caliber being .22. The most common shotgun gage was 12. Sharp weapons, such as knives and swords were used in some cases. Blunt objects, such as baseball bats and hammers have also been used. Adolescent mass murders usually bring about 2 to 3 weapons to commit the crime, most of which are taken from home or are purchased. This makes it all the more important for health care providers to assess for ease of access to firearms and for parents to make sure that their children do not have access to firearms.

Some of the percentages listed above may be larger or smaller than presented because for some of the variables there was insufficient data to determine their presence for all adolescents. It is important not to focus only one of these factors in isolation. However, the more of these risk factors that are combined together, the greater the risk becomes and should be a cause for concern and mental health intervention. Predicting mass murder in adolescents will always remain a challenge, because it is a very low frequency event.

Reference: Meloy JR1, Hempel AG, Mohandie K, Shiva AA, Gray BT. (2001). J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 40(6):719-28. Offender and offense characteristics of a nonrandom sample of adolescent mass murderers.

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