Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: Preventing Tragedy Revisited

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In the wake of Ivan Lopez’s Ft. Hood rampage, I posed a question to my readers; “can social media posts be considered ‘warning signs’ for violent / deadly behavior”? After another mass killing Isla Vista, Calif. a little more than a month later, the issue is again thrust back into the spotlight, this time calling police protocol into question:

A week after Elliot O. Rodger’s violent rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., that left six college students dead and 13 other people wounded, state lawmakers are now calling for an investigation of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office’s previous contact with Mr. Rodger. Some are calling for wholesale changes to how law enforcement officers respond to calls that someone could be a threat to himself or to others.

Sheriff’s deputies visited Mr. Rodger on April 30, just three weeks before his rampage, after receiving a call from his mother, who had been concerned by videos he posted online.

At the time, Mr. Rodger had already bought at least two firearms, which were both registered in his name. But sheriff’s deputies were unaware of that when they visited Mr. Rodger, because they had not checked the statewide gun ownership database. They also had not watched the videos Mr. Rodger had posted.

Law enforcement agencies across California have said that it is not necessarily standard practice to check the state gun registry before any check by officers on someone’s well-being. And the sheriff’s office has defended the six deputies who visited Mr. Rodger in April.

“When questioned by the deputies about reported disturbing videos he had posted online, Rodger told them he was having trouble fitting in socially in Isla Vista and the videos were merely a way of expressing himself,” the sheriff’s office said in a written statement.

“Sheriff’s deputies concluded that Rodger was not an immediate threat to himself or others, and that they did not have cause to place him on an involuntary mental health hold, or to enter or search his residence. Therefore, they did not view the videos or conduct a weapons check on Rodger.”

Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, would not elaborate on why no weapons check was done, and declined to confirm whether there would be an internal investigation of the visit.

Based on the information reviewed thus far, the sheriff’s office has determined that the deputies who responded handled the call in a professional manner consistent with state law and department policy,” Ms. Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said in an email on Saturday.

After Mr. Rodger’s rampage in Isla Vista, Ms. Jackson co-wrote legislation that would create a “gun-violence restraining order.” If family members or friends alert law enforcement that someone poses a threat to themselves or to others, law enforcement would then be able to petition a judge to prohibit the person from purchasing firearms.

Ms. Hannah-Beth Jackson, the state senator who represents Santa Barbara, said she planned to introduce further legislation designed to keep guns from people who could become violent, including a major overhaul in protocol for how the authorities follow up on calls from family members expressing worry that someone could hurt himself or others. She said a mental health professional, who is trained to identify mental illness, should accompany law enforcement.

We need to completely re-evaluate protocols that are used when law enforcement is given info that someone potentially is a danger to themselves or to others,” Ms. Jackson said. “I think we need to check the gun registry. And then we have to find a balance for when it is appropriate for police to remove those firearms, and when it is not.”

My intention is not to place blame on the Santa Barbara police officers who initially responded to Mr. Rodger’s mother’s call; I am sure they followed procedure for such incidents. However, the procedure they where following certainly needs to be revisited. While it is impossible to preemptively identify all killers, a certain pattern has emerged from the three most notorious mass killings in recent American history; Sandy Hook, Ft. Hood, and now UC Santa Barbara. Recognizing this pattern, and updating police procedures, could provide a blueprint for how to prevent future tragedies and get people the help they need:

Step 1) Identifying a Potential Threat: In each of these incidences there was someone–either a parent, confidant, or mental health worker–who had reason to believe the future shooter was mentally unstable. These people either notified the police, or should have.

In a recent NYT “Room For Debate”, 6 experts weighed in on the question “Can Therapists Prevent Violence?”; notably, each expert agreed to varying degrees that red flags should be acted on, and there should be greater coordination between law enforcement and mental health professionals–a rare consensus for a feature which typically, as its name suggests, presents a number of differing views.

Step 2/3) Access to Weapons: Adam Lanza, Ivan Lopez, and Elliot Rodger’s all had access to weapons; Lanza from his parents, while Lopez and Rodgers had legally bought guns prior to their rampages. If somebody is deemed a threat to themselves or others, the next question should be “do they have access to guns?” (beyond the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, direct access to a gun already purchased).

I applaud Senator Jackson’s proposed “gun-violence restraining order” plan to keep potentially dangerous people from buying guns. However, in a country where gun ownership is so pervasive, we must also consider whether these people already have direct access to a weapon.

 Step 3/2) Social Media Postings: Social media has become a window into people’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Adam Lanza’s social media posts showed a fascination with mass shootings, Lopez expressed a general disillusion with the world and sympathy for Adam Lanza prior to his massacre, and Mr. Rodger’s posted now infamous (and removed) videos detailing his personal issues on Youtube.

After a potential threat is referred to the police, an investigation of that person should begin immediately. If that person is known to have access to firearms, or has a social media footprint suggesting mental instability, this is pertinent information that police should be aware of before responding to a call (and not only for public safety, but also for the safety of the responding officers). The police should also be accompanied by a mental health professional, preferably one who has experience identifying someone who is trying to mislead investigators.

I am not talking about an in depth investigation, but rather a cursory search of weapons databases and social media outlets. This can all be done digitally and should not significantly delay police response times.

Preemptively identifying potential mass murders and placing them involuntarily under mental health surveillance based on the factors above is sure to be a contentious issue. Upon developing a new draft protocol, an open comment period including people suffering from mental illnesses, mental health experts, civil liberty advocates, law enforcement officials, and anybody else interested, should be initiated. Doing so would help develop a more effective police protocol that balances public safety and civil liberties (specifically for people with mental health issues).

Such a protocol would not prevent all mass murders–nothing can. Notably, it ignores those who obtain guns illegally (which if you ask a gun activist, 100% of criminals do, despite evidence to the contrary). It would also not help in the instance of an imminent threat. But it may have helped prevented any of the three tragedies mentioned in this post from occurring, and on that merit alone is worthy of serious consideration.

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Transparency Report: Youth Unemployment and Depression

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According to a recently release United Nations report, depression is the number one cause of illness and disability globally among adolescents (10-19 yrs old):

We hope this report will focus high-level attention on the health needs of 10 to 19-year-olds and serve as a springboard for accelerated action on adolescent health,” said Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General for Family, Women and Children’s Health at the UN World Health Organization (WHO).

An estimated 1.3 million adolescents died in 2012, largely from preventable causes, according to the UN agency’s Health for the world’s adolescents online report released today.

Depression was found to the be the greatest cause of illness and disability in this age group, with suicide raking third as the cause of death among young people.

This report reminded me of a journal article I read during my studies, “Development Economics Through the Lense of Psychology” (abstract excerpt below):

Economists conceptualize a world populated by calculating, unemotional maximizers. This view shapes our understanding of many crucial elements of development economics–from how rural villagers save, to how parents decide on whether to send their children to school.

Psychological research, however, has documented the incompleteness of this perspective. Individuals have self-control and time inconsistency problems. They can give into shortrun temptations and later regret it. They can have strong feelings about others that drive them to commit both generous and spiteful acts. They often passively accept defaults rather than make active choices. They let the institutions around them make choices for them. And they may misread new data in a ways that fit their beliefs. In short, the rational maximization model may not be a very good approximation of human behavior.

While this journal article does not explicitly cite mental illness or depression, due to my own experiences with depression my thoughts turned to the subject. There is no one cause of depression; there are elements of both “nature” (genetic predisposition) and “nurture” (experiences in life). However, “nurture” causes tend to be more direct and therefore preventable: dehumanization / pessimism related to poverty, uncertainty about the future, and unemployment:

In the shadow of the Great Recession lies a deep depression: Youths in their 20s and early 30s are hitting new lows. Compared with older workers who have lost their jobs, young people face more complex and layered hardships that could last most of their lives. They are experiencing disproportionately high unemployment, stretching indefinitely into the future, in an increasingly unequal and uncertain social landscape. And just when they are most in need of social support, the recession has led lawmakers to erode the welfare and employment programs that youths need to move themselves — and the economy they have inherited — toward recovery.

For young people in the United States and Europe, there is an emotional layer to this economic malaise. According to a recent U.K. survey of 2,161 people ages 16 to 25 by nonprofit advocacy group the Prince’s Trust, the unemployment epidemic is driving a mental-health crisis. While overall happiness levels for the surveyed youths stayed about level over the past year, reported emotional health fell significantly for the segment that is out of the workforce and not in school or job training. These young people experienced feelings of despondency and hopelessness at a higher rate than their peers. Chronically unemployed youths were more likely to have experienced panic attacks, engaged in self-harming behavior or felt suicidal. Mental-health problems struck 4 in 10 jobless young people “as a direct result of unemployment,” according to the Prince’s Trust.

One woman interviewed for the study said, “Being out of work stripped away my self-worth and made me feel like a waste of space.”

While this study considers young people in the U.S. and Europe, one can assume that young people in the developing world experience similar issues, as  youth unemployment is expectedly worse in many less developed countries.

Depression stunts personal development; how can someone invest in themselves or act as a long-term “rational maximizer” when they cannot see any hope in their future? But children are the future, and the number one illness affecting them is depression. To not pay the price to treat depression in adolescents is incredibly shortsighted–perhaps policy makers also do not act as “rational maximizers”, at least if the thing we hope to maximize is long-term social welfare.

The costs of inaction are not limited to lost economic output, human suffering and suicide, there are also security risks associated with leaving depression untreated:

Adam Lankford, a professor from the University of Alabama, concluded that many suicide terrorists weren’t ideologues at all—but were, in fact, classically suicidal. He cited Israeli scholarly research of would-be Palestinian bombers: Forty percent of them exhibited suicidal tendencies; 13 percent had already attempted suicide, unrelated to terrorism. Lankford went on to mention a 9/11 hijacker who wrote a final note to his wife and lamented how he never lived up to her expectations. Lankford described other terrorists in Palestine and Chechnya who were in poor health, recently divorced, or financially insolvent in the months prior to an attack. He also talked about the terrorist recruiters who admitted to looking for the “sad guys” for martyrdom.

While this study is far from conclusive, it would be closed-minded to refuse to consider the relationship between mental illness and terrorism. People with depression are often looking for meaning and companionship; joining a terrorist organization provides both.

And this security risk is hardly confined to the developing world; one would be hard pressed to find a mass killing anywhere in the world that is not linked to some form of mental illness. To be fair, no statistical relationship between teen depression and violent crime has been established, although this does not rule out the strong possibility that there is some relationship between mental illness and violence.

As someone who has experienced depression, this reports findings hit close to home. I am fortunate to have been born into an upper-middle class American family and receive top notch treatment–most people are not so lucky. Depression and other forms of mental illness are often seen as a “rich person’s disease”, and treatment as a luxury. This study refutes this misconception–depression can affect anyone; old or young, rich or poor. The universality of depression gives hope that it is an issue the global community can rally around and adequately address.

Increased access to mental healthcare must be part of healthcare reforms in both developed and developing nations. This is not an abstract concept, inaction has real costs that affect many people. Further compounding this problem is the existence of a stigma against people with mental illnesses (which is likely more prevalent in less developed places). When one feels ashamed of having a mental illness, the condition generally becomes worse and treatment is not sought. Part of the solution may be educating people to break this stigma.

The prevalence of depression amongst the world’s youth is alarming, but unfortunately to this social scientist / previously depressed young adult, it is not surprising. If depression can affect people who have had all their needs met, imagine how prevalent (and under-diagnosed) it must be the world’s most impoverished areas. Failure to treat mental illness not only impedes an individual’s positive liberties, it can also result in the most grievous violation of ones negative liberties possible–murder.

For some, finding employment is enough to alleviate the symptoms of depression. For others, treatment and therapy are required. Many anti-social behaviors can be tempered by a global push to address depression in adolescents, hopefully this U.N. report focuses a stronger spotlight on preventing and treating adolescent depression.


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Economic Outlook: An Ounce Of Crisis Prevention Is Worth A Pound Of Cure

So why do the international community and national governments under-fund crises prevention initiatives? (Especially given that there is no singular “cure” for various crises).

The rising scale of needs, a collective inability to resolve protracted crises, and the interplay of new factors such as climate change, are making it harder for Governments and aid workers to effectively respond to humanitarian challenges, the United Nations today reported, stressing that development aid must contribute to managing crisis risk.

The report, World Humanitarian Data and Trends 2013, authored by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), highlights major trends in the nature of humanitarian crises, the underlying causes and drivers, and the actors that participate in crises prevention, response and recovery.

“Climate change, population growth, rapid and unplanned urbanization, and food and water insecurity are leaving more and more people at risk of crisis,” write the report’s authors, listing some of the new factors facing the humanitarian community.

Among other trends, the report shows that today’s major humanitarian crises are protracted “with few signs of improvements over the long term.”

Of countries that had an inter-agency appeal in 2012, eight had an appeal in eight or more of the previous ten years, including in Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Somalia.

When not protracted, the crises are often recurrent, occurring as a result of shocks – climate, conflict, price – to chronically vulnerable people.

On these factors, the report concludes that humanitarian assistance is still overwhelmingly focused on response and development aid often fails to target the most vulnerable.

“Less than five per cent of humanitarian funding and less than one per cent of development funding is spent on crisis preparedness and prevention,” according to figures provided.

Just as one human rights violation enables others, one humanitarian crisis often leads to future manifestations of the same or related crises. The intractable / recurrent nature of humanitarian crises highlights the need to focus on a preventative approach to building resilience to humanitarian crises. Programs which build resilience to humanitarian crises are essentially poverty reduction / sustainable human development programs (think I am oversimplifying? The United Nations Development Programme’s motto is “empowered lives, resilient nations”).

Least developed countries (LDCs) do not have access to private sector credit (at affordable rates), particularly in times of great need (like after a major crisis). Therefore, an essential component of crisis preparedness are counter-cyclical fiscal policies. Many LDCs rely on natural resource rents for financing government programs. Counter-cyclical natural resource funds, such as the Nigeria’s Sovereign Investment Authority (which draws on excess oil rents), can be powerful tools for crisis preparedness.

Responsible use of ODA / natural resource rents relies on “good governance“. Corrupt leaders can easily embezzle ODA / public savings, and send that money offshore where it can never be recoveredFinding the right balance between prevention / preparedness and crisis response is a difficult task even for the most well intended governments / organizations.

However, it is obvious that spending only 1 % of official development assistance (ODA) on preventative / preparedness measures is a short-sighted strategy (although using a broader definition of “preventative action”, as I have, may encompass a larger portion of ODA). Further exacerbating the problem, there is a large gap in ODA commitments from the worlds wealthiest nations. Dedicating a bigger slice of a bigger pie to crisis prevention / preparedness is needed to strike a responsible balance

There are obvious reasons why the vast majority of ODA goes towards crisis response. Failure to respond to a humanitarian crisis can create breeding grounds for disease, human rights violations, violence/terrorism, and/or lost generations of economic growth. In addition, it is generally easier to mobilize resources in response to a specific incidence (which is seen as unavoidable), than it is for under-development / extreme poverty (which people often unmistakably attribute to laziness). However, it should be the job of development organizations to direct funding to the avenues which will have the greatest impact.

The democratic governance based approach to sustainable human development helps overcome common development issues. By emphasizing political rights and accountable governance, donors and citizens can be confident money is going (or in the case of preparedness, staying) where it is “supposed” to go. Farsighted “good” governments, whose capacities are fully developed with adequate resources (a combination of public savings / ODA), can achieve the simultaneous goals of economic development and resilience to crisis. By emphasizing human rights and environmental sustainability, humanitarian crises are addressed preventatively.

There is no one “road-map” for Sustainable Human Development. Every country is unique and has to build its own path–what Dr. Jeffrey Sachs refers to as “differential diagnosis“.

However, there are some common steps all LDCs should take if they wish to be on the path to sustainable human development: 

1) Draft Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans (PRSPs) that take into consideration the indispensable role of human rights and accountable governance; 

2) Legislate the human rights accountability from all relevant stakeholders (governments, civil society, NGOs, private sector, IGOs, etc.);

3) Mobilize a greater share of resources for sustainable human development programs to prevent / prepare for humanitarian crises.

Update: The UNDP-EU just released interactive maps detailing their joint projects over the last 10 years. One of these maps focuses on crisis prevention and recovery projects.