Psychologist: School threats could be cries for help

Feb 23, 2018, 3:44 PM | Updated: 9:32 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah schools have seen at least four school threats this week, and there are dozens more across the country.

“Any attention is better than no attention,” said Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, director of child and adolescent services at Wasatch Family Therapy.

That’s typically part of what’s going on when a teenager makes a social media threat against a school, Mellenthin said, even if it means getting arrested.

“Even if it’s absolutely negative and toxic and harmful,” she said. “At least, they’re being seen when they don’t feel like they are being seen in other places.” Mellenthin said that kind of behavior resembles a cry for help.

“A child who may be struggling emotionally or mentally and is needing some attention or some validation, or just somebody to say, ‘Wow this kid needs some help.’ That’s how they’re calling out for help: I’m going to do the same thing,” she said.

Other kids lack the maturity to understand the consequences, Mellenthin said.

“It’s not a funny joke, but, they may be somewhat immature in their brain development that they don’t recognize that,” she said.

Other teenagers obsess over school shootings with fascination – students who may actually be thinking about violence.  These are the children, she said, that need to get the proper kind of counseling before they do harm.

“There are kids that are in the planning stages (of school attacks), and we are letting a lot of kids fall through the gaps.”

Mellenthin recommends a school psychologist or social worker in every school and smaller class sizes.

“If we really want to combat this problem, we need to be working from the ground up,” she said. “Have smaller class sizes where the teacher has the ability to have a relationship with each kid and their parents.”

In a smaller class, she said, teacher could more easily recognize when a student is struggling emotionally and mentally. She also suggested a holistic approach to educating students.

“We should create a physical and mental and emotional health paradigm for our schools,” Mellenthin said. “I think that would combat this more than anything else.”

Mellenthin commends the students who stepped up to turn in classmates making threats against schools. She said taking a stand against the violence can make them feel empowered, rather than helpless.

“They are enacting and empowering themselves to make a difference,” she said. “So, it takes that sense of hopelessness and channels it into a sense of activism.”

That’s a healthy response to a traumatic experience, she said. It enables people who felt traumatized, no matter how far from the shooting, to regain some sense of control after feeling helpless in the wake of the shooting.

“Those kids are very, very brave,” said Mellenthin. “They should be commended for what they did and for calling the police and saying, ‘Hey, this is scary to me. This is what I saw.’ Those kids did the right thing, and they were able to use their voices and not be a passive audience to this anymore.”

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Psychologist: School threats could be cries for help