[Viewpoint] School violence from psychiatric perspectives

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[Viewpoint] School violence from psychiatric perspectives

Seriousness of school and adolescent violence came under limelight recently, but it is hardly news to a psychologist who deals with both the victims and offenders every day. The problem has been studied by many local scholars and doctors and their works have been published overseas so that experts outside are also familiar with the developments of violence at Korean school campuses. Their works usually separate case examiners into victims, bullies, and those who experienced both the offending and victim side to study their group behaviors as well as mental and emotional problems.

Special characteristics of the Korean case are: first both the victim and perpetrator group is getting younger with sharp growth in the age group of 11 to 13 years old. The trend coincides with acceleration of physical growth into adolescence in today’s age. Second, the role of victim and perpetrator changes frequently according to the balance of power, suggesting that both victim and offending group could potentially grow.

A normal teenager usually seeks psychological freedom from parents to instead pursue social relationship by joining a peer group. Friendship in teenage can make great influence over one’s individuality and identity as well as building self-respect, assurance, and social adaptability and skills. Positive peer relationship in teenage could become socially rewarding experience as it can shape an individual mental and social development as a grown-up.

If first peer experience during youth is marred by destructive influence of violence, it can cause traumatic consequences on one’s mental health and even exact extreme disorders like depression, anxiety, social phobia, or post-traumatic stress. Such mental instabilities can exact early smoking, drinking, or behavioral problems like computer or game addiction or aggressive and illegal acts among children and youth. The bullies and perpetrators could develop abusive behavior, aggression, and addictive disorders.

The mental behaviors of the victim and perpetrator group are unique yet at the same time cannot easily be differentiated. Therefore endeavors to identify the victim and perpetrator trend to prevent and interfere with school violence do not help much. Because studies show that both the victims and perpetrators develop post-trauma mental and behavioral disorders and problems, it is more important to focus clinical and social interest on helping both the victims and perpetrators instead of focusing them as separate groups.

Many wonder and debate whether various mental and emotional problems of the victims and perpetrators exact conflicts and acts of violence at school or work the other way around. The conclusion cannot be made easily or that necessary. What is more important is to know and stay alert to the symptoms and signs of disorders from youth violence victims and perpetrators. Teachers and parents much catch the early behavioral and mental signs and changes in their students and children. Deep understanding of complicate developmental psychology and pathology of children and youth can lead to effective interference and clinical actions to violence.

School violence experience can generate posttraumatic stress disorders. Those who survived interpersonal violence tend to develop disorders from feeling of fear more easily than those who experienced natural disasters or other types of crisis. Because natural disasters, accidents, or other traumatic events are unpredictable, victims can in time come to accept them as their fate.

But terrifying violent experience from school days lasts as traumatic memory, perpetually crippling one’s self-confidence, self-awareness, and social adaptability. Moreover, the repetitive and prolonged nature of verbal and physical abuses at school also strengthens the scars of traumatic memories. From clinical and therapeutic perspective, the subjective response by victims is as important as the objective extent of traumatic events in causing post-traumatic mental disorders. The relationship with school violence and post-traumatic disorders must therefore demand close and continuous attention and study.

Studies from Finland and Australia as well as other areas follow the lives of victims and perpetrators of school violence for at least two years and even as long as 15 years. The long-term studies on the consequential problems and changes in the lives of victims and offenders have meaning beyond academic findings. Our own attention and study should not be a temporary one. Our country too must embark on long-term research and examination on the features of child and youth psychological and physical developments and pathological trend to come up with effective preventive and cure measures on school and adolescent violence.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily.

*The writer is a doctor at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, College of Medicine, Seoul National University.

by Kim Jae-won
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