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The Role of Group Psychotherapeutic Interventions in Youth Violence Reduction and Primary Prevention - A White Paper

A document prepared by the American Group Psychotherapy Association with the support of the Center for Mental Health Services

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This White Paper is the product of the hard work of many members of the American Group Psychotherapy Association. The efforts of two members deserve special mention. Seth Aronson, Psy.D., CGP and Gerald Schamess, M.S.S., CGP, coordinated this project from the outset, and did the bulk of the writing of the final document. Their contributions from beginning to end were invaluable in the successful completion of this project.

The literature identifies a number of factors that reliably predict the incidence of violent behavior.  Social factors include poverty, unemployment, housing instability, deterioration of social and economic supports, participation in gang activity, the breakdown of community-specific social support networks, and, in general, a “dramatic destruction of the infrastructure of daily life” (Garbarino, 1997) Psychological factors include substance abuse, schizophrenia, paranoid states, psychopathy, PTSD, and certain personality disorders characterized by explosive temper, social intolerance, extreme alienation, narcissistic vulnerability, and intense feelings of shame, hatred, or despair accompanied by violent fantasies.  All have been shown, individually, to increase the likelihood of violent behavior.

In this chapter, we have emphasized four additional factors, three of them social and one of them psychological.  The social factors are 1) easy access to guns, 2) the simultaneously stimulating and numbing effects of continual exposure to violence on television, and 3) the desensitizing effect of violent, “point and shoot” video games.  The psychological factor we emphasize is traumatic exposure, particularly exposure to or participation in violent behavior.  We have focused on these factors because of their apparent universality.  In cutting across social and economic distinctions, they seem to expand the available explanatory paradigms in ways that address the recent increase in incidents characterized by lethal shootings, with multiple victims, that have occurred in relatively affluent, predominantly Caucasian suburban schools.  The large number of factors cited above supports the view that school violence is a multi-determined phenomenon on, usually precipitated by the interaction of a number of social and psychological variables that shape children’s behavior in school, but typically do not originate within the school environment.  Incidents and interactions at school may trigger violent behavior, but they do so only when the necessary pre-conditions are already present.  To complicate the issue further, actual violence, particularly lethal violence, is usually multi-determined, resulting from the confluence of two or more such variables.  In this context, it is important to emphasize the research literature which indicates that, especially among children and youth, individual functioning is increasingly compromised as the number of impinging variables increase (Garbarino, 1999). 

All of these observations converge to confirm the CMHS view that a public health approach is likely to be the most promising way of addressing issues of school violence.  At this point in time, however, most if not all of the programs we identified and reviewed in this study are designed to promote pro-social behavior by improving cognitive problem-solving ability and increasing social skills within specific school communities.  Although there is some literature which attempts to emphasize the importance of community-school partnerships (Smith Studies, 2001), the programs identified in this review are, for the most part, more narrowly conceptualized.  Given that schools are academic institutions, it is not surprising that they strongly prefer interventions conceptualized as curricula.  Interventions of this kind are compatible because they are designed to promote some form of learning, and can be readily located within an established classroom schedule.  Even given this preference, some of the programs reviewed below are designed to modify aspects of the school-as-a-whole emotional-social-educational environment, a promising way station on the road to authentic school-community partnerships.  In addition, the research suggests that teaching social skills does, in fact, effectively modify attitudes, cognitive patterns, and problem-solving ability in ways that seem likely to change behavior patterns.  We will say more about this in the conclusion to this White Paper.  This review suggests we have made real progress toward developing group dynamic interventions that effectively limit and/or reduce school violence.  The goal may well be within reach, even though we are not there yet.

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