A few years ago, acquaintances of an unidentified college student noticed odd behavior. He developed an interest in firearms, created a shooting range in his basement with pictures of his roommates as targets, and began abusing animals.
His roommates told college officials, who alerted the FBI, according the agency’s Andre Simmons. The FBI’s Behavioral Threat Assessment Center analysts approached the man and persuaded him to admit himself into a psychiatric facility.
Last year, the Behavioral Threat Assessment Center, a unit of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, increased by 33 percent what it calls “prevented” shootings and violent attacks—cases in which analysts think a mentally ill person will become violent and provide professional help to a potential attacker. Simmons said that through November, the center had referred 148 cases to mental health professionals before violence occurred.
The FBI’s Behavioral Threat Assessment Center springs into action when someone informs law enforcement of a person displaying behaviors consistent with both mental illness and violent tendencies—like the university student Simmons described. The center launched in 2010, and the FBI has been trying to raise its profile through two-day conferences focusing on the threat of active shooters, Simmons said.
The center is staffed by agents and analysts from the FBI, the U.S. Capitol Police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, and Explosives, and a psychiatrist. It helps local officials assess threats and recommends how to proceed. The recommendations could include arrest, if the person is involved in illegal activity, but most often involves getting that person access to mental health care, Simmons said.
But finding links between mental problems and mass violence isn’t simple.
Dr. Eric Scalise, vice president of professional development for the American Association of Christian Counselors, wrote in an issue of Christian Coaching Today that most evaluations aimed at predicting violence had “low to moderate results, although instruments designed to predict severe violence performed slightly better than those aimed at sexual or general crime.”
As mass shootings like those in Aurora, Colo., and Newton, Conn., continue to garner media attention, pressure for mental health professionals to predict violence has increased, Scalise said. “Yet no single factor has been shown that definitively leads to violence, primarily because the construct is too complex to overly simplify the determination process.”
Liberty University professor and psychologist Dr. John Charles Thomas advised Christian mental health professionals to work closely with their local emergency agencies to find and treat the mentally ill, specifically in instances of crime. “Make partnerships (medical, law enforcement, first responders, etc.) and establish a secure communication link with these systems before a crisis occurs,” he wrote in a 2008 paper. “Volunteer to provide training for officers dealing with this population.”