Florida – and the nation – narrowly escaped tragedy last week when officials arrested a Tampa teenager who had been plotting to bomb and kill 30 students and two administrators at his high school. Few were surprised to learn that the potential attacker, 17-year-old Jared Cano, was involved with drugs and alcohol—his use was confirmed by photos and statements on his Facebook profile. Yet while the thwarted attack has put many parents and teachers on the lookout for violent tendencies in teens, we should not assume that Cano’s substance abuse was the trigger for his violent behavior—or vice-versa.
For Cano and many other teens, substance abuse is only one part of a much larger problem. Research shows that drug/alcohol use, violence, and behavior disorders form a cluster of risk behaviors that often coexist in particular individuals. Drugs and alcohol, for example, often exacerbate existing mental health issues. Dabbling in these substances can easily worsen a child’s already troubled or desperate outlook on life, increasing his ambivalence and even prompting violent acts.
Troubled kids need positive activities in their lives to help steer them down the right path, and drugging and drinking are anything but positive. The connection between substance abuse and violence is an important issue, and while no one would imply that a drug problem alone inspired Jared Cano to write his murder “manifesto,” we’re not dealing with a direct cause and effect here. There are a lot of steps in between having negative thoughts and deciding to kill people, and substance abuse can hasten the progress between those steps.
I remember one teen client whom we treated at Phoenix Houses of Florida; he was angry, disaffected, and unapproachable. He wore a lot of t-shirts with violent slogans and lyrics, and even the older kids were afraid of him. His family had sent him to Phoenix House, thinking “if we can get him off pot and booze, he’ll be fine.” When the clinicians met with him, however, we knew right away that he had serious burgeoning mental health issues; he suffered from depression as well as early signs of a possible thought disorder, and these issues had been hurting him at school. It was easy to see how his attitude of “I hate school and everybody who goes there,” could have gone horribly wrong.
Fortunately, we were able to treat both his substance abuse and his mental health issues. With proper diagnosis, individual therapy, medication, and family counseling, his condition stabilized; by the end of treatment he was talking to his counselor, interacting with the other kids, even smiling. It was a tremendous improvement, and that kind of positive change can last a lifetime.
It’s important for parents to realize that drugs and alcohol are not always the sole cause of a child’s bad grades or destructive behavior. Kids with mental health problems need additional professional help, and families don’t often like to hear that. Fortunately, a good professional can tell the difference between a kid who is “different” and a kid whose behavior has the potential to become truly dangerous. My advice to parents: when in doubt, get help for your teen. You may save more lives than you’ll ever know.
Jack M. Feinberg, LMHC, CAP
Vice President and Clinical Director
Phoenix Houses of Florida