Getting Help to Potentially Violent Youth in Public Schools

Getting Help to Potentially Violent Youth in Public Schools

The horrific shootings in Newtown, CT have elevated public concern about undiagnosed mental illness in individuals who seemingly suddenly erupt into violence. But how does the average parent, teacher or friend identify and get help to a troubled youth before it is too late? Members of Youth For Tomorrow’s counseling staff came together recently to share some insights based on YFT’s decades of experience working with and helping alienated youth.

 “When you look at kids enrolling in school, there is no sure process to find out, but we see a common thread in these events,” says YFT’s Director of Clinical Services Dr. Terry R. Tinsley. “There is a detachment, a darkness that surrounds them. There are issues of connectedness. Some kids are not interacting. That is a warning sign that we should investigate further.”

 “We have to pay attention to that child who is withdrawn. His or her issues can escalate.”

Ironically, he notes, with all the other problems teachers have maintaining order in classrooms, if students are not acting out, the teachers may think that they are the “good kids.” With the heavy  load of SOL testing and other requirements and the lack of counseling staff in schools, many troubled young people travel beneath the radar.

How Violence Can Germinate:

What can happen, members of the counseling staff say, is that as the child has no appropriate bonding, he or she feels anger and has thoughts like “I want to hurt you. I want to kill you.” These feelings can take on a life of their own. The youth can turn to the internet with almost any idea—like “I want to kill my principal”—and almost immediately have 500 responses from like-minded individuals. This validates what the youth is thinking or feeling and the idea further escalates.

The sophistication of technology has meant that any thought or news can be broadcast in seconds—spreading an individual’s thoughts, anger or hurts. Bullying also has gone to a whole new level in the social media.

Schools that consider a child a potential threat to others may suspend the youth until a mental health evaluation and threat assessment can be conducted. This can actually exacerbate the problem as the child is put on a waiting list, falls behind in class, becomes further frustrated and alienated, and the isolation takes its toll.

Unintentionally, the school may be breeding a child that may potentially hurt himself or others, the counselors say.

Addressing the Issues:

Supported by a grant from Potomac Health Foundation, Youth For Tomorrow counselors are now providing Crisis Intervention Counseling Services in the community to support parents and children. The program combines intensive treatment to students utilizing psychotherapeutic interventions with educational assistance and mental health treatment.

This may include behavior management, extensive face-to-face support, diagnostic assessment, weekly family counseling, weekly therapy sessions, anger management, therapeutic activities, and daily group therapeutic sessions, as well as medication management education.

Children’s problems can have many causes—lack of structure, abuse, lack of parental consistency, single parent home, substance abuse in  the  family—YFT  staff members say.  But alienation can happen in two-parent homes as well if the child is ignored or abused. Counselors also look for possible mental health history, such as depression, on the mother’s side.

Identifying Potential Problems:

The counselors ask the children questions. They look at how a child dresses. “Dark makeup, dark clothing, trench coats, what we choose to look like all often reflects how we feel inside,” Tinsley says.

The YFT school services means that children have someone who can advocate for them and understand their needs. Instead of waiting three months for help, their issues can be addressed immediately. When the intervention is done in the school, the child is not ostracized by being kept out for several months, leading to further alienation.

If they need further diagnosis, youths are referred to the YFT Diagnostic and Assessment Center in Woodbridge. If needed, they can receive Outpatient Mental Health Services at the same location, including medication management. YFT’s Intensive In-Home Services can work with the family.

All are part of YFT’s External Services Programs, which are staffed  by  a  total  of 16 therapists including a psychologist and a psychiatrist. More than 250 young people have been served since the programs were launched at the beginning of 2012. The programs are supported by Potomac Health Foundation.

Referrals to YFT’s External Programs can come from any source, including parents, teachers, law enforcement and concerned citizens. Many contacts are made through the YFT website by parents or friends who are looking for help and don’t know where to turn.

The counseling staff relates how one woman called and desperately cried for help. She said she didn’t know where to turn, and found the YFT website on the internet. She said that she knew something was wrong with her child but no one would help her. YFT reached out to give her help.

More information about Youth For Tomorrow’s counseling services is available at

This article was featured in our Spring 2013 Newsletter. Click here to download the PDF.