Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q. I pretty much grew up with school shootings and lockdown drills. This one in Dayton brought it close to home because one of our own was senselessly murdered.

I’m connecting with you today because I could always talk with you when I was young. If possible, I’d like you to put this in your column. I know I’m not the only young adult or teen who feels this way. I’ve dealt with depression since middle school. You suggested counseling a long time ago, and I still see a therapist. What’s troubling me are the people blaming mental illness for these horrible shootings. I’ve only ever been a potential harm to myself.

Dealing with stress or depression or bipolar or whatever complicates a person’s life but doesn’t turn someone into an unhinged monster. I believe this is a political distraction. I also was a gamer in high school. I played all kinds of video games, like Call of Duty. I now play Fortnite. These imaginary worlds helped me cope and gave me a focus outside of my troubled family. I’m sure playing video games doesn’t make people kill others in a burst of automatic gunfire.

Will you back me up? This matters to me.

– 26-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: I’m so pleased to hear you’re seeing your therapist. Thanks for connecting; it is an honor to be remembered. Not only will I back you up, I have research to support you.

Before we discuss your concerns, please let me publicly state my condolences for all families who’ve lost a loved one to violence. It is especially sad to know one of those murdered, and I pray for this wonderful young man’s family.

Let’s talk about mental illness first. I’ve served young people for decades. When I completed my master’s in counseling, a long time ago, I vowed to work hard to diminish the stigma associated with mental illness. Teens are especially affected by a fear of judgment; this fear can be paralyzing and keep a young person from treatment. In my own counseling practice, I also saw many adults who hesitated before seeking therapy.

Few would try to walk on a fractured leg. Going to an orthopedic surgeon for treatment isn’t judged because the health problem is visible and obvious. Mental health challenges cannot be seen and are associated with negativity, as if a depressed individual can “wish it away” or is choosing to be depressed. These are dangerous and cruel ways to look at mental illness.

Stigmatizing mental illness will not stop the next shooter. This is an excerpt from the president of the American Psychological Association’s statement on mass shooting: “Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing. Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness. The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them. One critical factor is access to, and the lethality of, the weapons that are being used in these crimes. Adding racism, intolerance and bigotry to the mix is a recipe for disaster.”

We should all seek treatment when needed, without fear of judgment. No one is a political pawn. We all need to work hard to eliminate racism and bigotry. Each person is a person of worth.

My thoughts on gaming are also congruent with yours.

People all over the world play video games without a mass shooting problem like ours. Forgive me for teaching you something you may know, but I cannot be certain. Do you know the scene in the movie “The Princess Bride” where the character Inigo Montoya says: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”?

Two terms used in research are correlation and causation. Both terms are often used without true awareness. Correlation refers to association, but does not infer one variable or thing caused another. An Italian cook like me may fix lasagna but lasagna is not only prepared by Italian cooks. There can be other variables to this cooking experience. Education as an Italian cook, having access to lasagna ingredients, a taste for lasagna … my Italian heritage did not cause me to cook lasagna, but it is associated with my choice of dish.

Causation is different. When a research article tell us causation was found, it means the researchers found changes in one variable they measured that directly caused changes in the other. Most research reported in the media talks about correlation, not causation. Look for key words when reading. If the report refers to “more likely to,” the article is about correlation, not causation.

I’ve known so many “gamers” over the last decades. These are great young people, sometimes a little focused on the games they play, but not killers. The whole video game/shooter scare started with Columbine, but numerous research studies examined a possible connection and found none.

Christopher J. Ferguson, a Stetson University psychologist whose work disproves causal connections between video games and violent acts, says the following: “But the evidence is very clear that there’s not a relationship between violent video games and violence in society. There’s not evidence of a correlation, let alone a causation.”

I refuse to print the names of shooters, but I will share an interesting piece of shooter trivia. The murderer at Sandy Hook played Dance, Dance Revolution. The Virginia Tech shooter played Sonic the Hedgehog.

Finally, if an adult truly listens to young people, it’s easy to see they know the difference between games and reality. What breaks my heart is their reality is often now more brutal than their games.

I wish you joy.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at podmj@healthyteens.com.

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