How would I go about setting up a national hotline for those contemplating a mass shooting?
September 4, 2012 10:39 AM   Subscribe

I think it would be a good idea to set up a national hotline modeled after the suicide hotline for angry and alienated people who are contemplating a mass shooting in the US. I'd like to collect your thoughts.

First of all, if I actually wanted to accomplish this, as a young college student with basically no power in the world, I imagine the best thing to do would be to go and speak to psychology and criminology professors on my campus, which I will probably do. To the extent that there is a conflict between preventing mass shootings and not scaring away potential callers so as to gather more info on this population via recorded phone conversations, I would want the hotline to tilt towards the latter. Even if not much in the way of useful or actionable information could be gleaned from the conversations, I think that just getting a better idea of how many people are contemplating this in our increasingly atomized and unequal society would probably be a good thing. I'd like to see if anyone has any suggestions, tips, ethical or legal reasons why this can't or shouldn't ever happen, political reasons why it never will happen, estimates of how likely I am to succeed, etc. Basically, what does the green think of this idea?
posted by bookman117 to Human Relations (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Why replicate it, when instead you might encourage the expansion of the training for existing lines?
posted by tilde at 10:41 AM on September 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

I'll admit I can't articulate exactly why, but my hunch is that the people who would most likely benefit from it are least likely to recognize that they need it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:46 AM on September 4, 2012 [10 favorites]

Following up on tilde's comment, check out this list and this hotline.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:46 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

This seems oddly biased in the direction of certain stories that have made the headlines lately.

Why limit it to mass shootings? The vast majority of murder victims are not killed in mass murders. The media's decision to make the killing of 10 a major national news story, while 10 separate murders of individuals are likely to be minor local news at most, is based on which types of stories draw the attention of the most readers/views. It's an entirely separate question which kinds of attacks actually cause the most harm.

And why limit it to shootings? What is so special about violent attacks that are committed using a gun? The answer can't just be that gunshots can be fatal -- they often aren't fatal. And many other weapons are used to commit murder -- not just knives but also all sorts of household objects that you might not even think of as weapons.

Why not broaden your project to encompass violent attacks in general?
posted by John Cohen at 10:55 AM on September 4, 2012 [11 favorites]

I think that one important difference to consider between suicides and mass shootings is that suicides happen much, much, much more often than public mass shootings. According to this, around 34,000 people per year commit suicide in the US. Whereas, according to this, , there were around 120 public mass killings from 1996 to 2009. So, suicides are roughly ten thousand times more common than public mass killings.
posted by ManInSuit at 10:56 AM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'd like to see if anyone has any suggestions, tips, ethical or legal reasons why this can't or shouldn't ever happen

I'm not a lawyer but one complicating factor could be that taking steps to commit a murder or shooting spree is a crime in most places, which could mean that the people running the hotline would be legally obligated to report every person who called in to the police. The hotline would at the very least face criticism from the public if they didn't make any effort to track down or report people who are serious about committing a shooting, but doing that would be a huge deterrent for those people to call the hotline in the first place.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:07 AM on September 4, 2012 [23 favorites]

Basically, what does the green think of this idea?

Planning an entire mental health service around a particular type of violent ideation seems unduly limiting.

From an operations perspective the existing mental health hotlines are already staffed, already have advertising, and in general already fill the niche that you're looking at. If you were to add "contemplating mass murder" to their list of reasons to call you would be done.

If you set up a separate line anyway in order to get the recordings that you're looking for you would find yourself in the unenviable position of competing with existing lines for clients. I guess you could try to cooperate, but thought of a counselor building a bridge with a client and then suddenly saying "Sorry, I'm going to have to transfer you to our mass murder department" seems a little ridiculous.

What I'm saying is that this is going to be a hard sell. Unless you're in a position to fund it yourself you'd need an extraordinarily good argument to pry money out of the agencies that fund the existing hotlines, and I'm not really seeing what argument might be.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:12 AM on September 4, 2012

taking steps to commit a murder or shooting spree is a crime in most places, which could mean that the people running the hotline would be legally obligated to report every person who called in to the police.

Not a lawyer either but I'm fairly familiar with mandatory reporter laws and my understanding is that the the client would have to have made specific plans before notification would be necessary. Just saying "I feel like killing a bunch of people" would not do it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:16 AM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wouldn't anyone running such a hotline have to be a mandated reporter ... so every incoming call would have to be reported to law enforcement ... so nobody would call in?
posted by headnsouth at 11:18 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

This idea assumes that people who commit such crimes might be interested in being talked out of doing so... Considering the apparent lack of remorse many of the recent perpetrators have demonstrated, it's hard to imagine them reaching out for help.
posted by cecic at 11:20 AM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

There is some precedence for other violence-prevention hotlines, for example the National Child Abuse Hotline, which offers services to "distressed parents seeking crisis intervention" and promises that "all calls are anonymous and confidential." I would start by researching extant resources.
posted by desjardins at 11:25 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agree with cecic -- IMO, this idea is naive.
posted by Rash at 11:25 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most national hotlines, as I understand, aren't really "national" in the sense of one central office responding to all calls; most are networks of local crisis or call centers. Think of it like 911 -- you can call one number anywhere in the US, but you get routed not to a national dispatch but to the local police or emergency center.

Each individual center must follow its state's laws about mandated reporting, confidentiality, etc. While people who commit suicide are generally only a danger to themselves, people contemplating harming others are, by definition, a danger to others, and most states have very strict reporting laws about what a therapist or therapist-like person must report when hearing credible threats against specific people. In California, at least, a licensed therapist would have to report the threat to the police and to the specific target as soon as possible.

There are certainly ways to skirt the issue. Rape crisis line workers (in California, again) are legally required to report sexual assault of minors, but can get around it by informing the caller that if they're a minor, the worker will have to report the assault if the caller gives them enough information, like the perpetrator's name or other identifying information; then the caller is empowered to decide whether or not to provide action-able information. I would suspect that trying to skirt this issue with callers who are contemplating harming others themselves would create a framework where workers could still be sued for not adequately protecting the public. (And in my mind, rightfully so. There's a reason that even therapist confidentiality does not extend to credible threats of future violence.)

So then you're also dealing with liability issues. You would need to protect your call center and your workers from being held responsible by the murderer ("I wasn't really going to do it, but when I called for help they said something that triggered me") and the victims and their families ("The call center should have called the police"). Given that the call center's mission would be, in many ways, to protect a violent offender, I would find it hard to believe that much legal precedent exists to create shields for the centers and workers, in the way that it does to protect rape or domestic violence victims, for instance, but I could be wrong.

So, you'd likely need:
1. A national network of call centers, that
2. adhered to local mandated reporting laws and
3. had legal protections in place for their call-center workers or volunteers
posted by jaguar at 11:29 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

ManInSuit has the right of it.

Hotlines are best for common things that have common motivators. Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Suicide, Alcoholism.

Sadly those things are really common and caused by fairly typical (though sometimes terrible) motivations.

Mass murder is something incredibly rare and often planned by people who are taking every step not to be stopped. Not people looking for help.
posted by French Fry at 11:30 AM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

You'd probably also need some sort of close-to-standardized training for the centers' volunteers and workers. Knowing how to defuse someone's violent anger over a telephone is certainly not an innate skill, and giving your workers adequate training would likely be required to create any sort of legal shield for them.
posted by jaguar at 11:37 AM on September 4, 2012

And, as part of that training, your workers/volunteers would likely need to learn how to assess threats for credibility, which is likely going to require asking if the caller has a target, the means of hurting that target, etc. If the worker does the assessment, he or she will therefore often have to report the credible threat to the police; if he or she doesn't do the assessment so as not to frighten off the caller, you're left with a wide-open liability issue, in my opinion.
posted by jaguar at 11:41 AM on September 4, 2012

Mass murder is something incredibly rare

This is an important point, and I'd just like to emphasize that a huge part of why mass murder becomes a front-page story, where we keep hearing about the details for days or even months, is BECAUSE it's rare.

The kinds of mass murder that makes the news is also difficult to fathom. It's bizarre. It doesn't fit an easily understandable pattern. Bizarre stories make the news.

Bad things that happen all the time, every day, with depressing similarity and predictable patterns, do not make for banner headlines. By definition, something that happens all the time isn't the big news of the day. That very boringness and predictability makes suicide, alcoholism, domestic violence, etc., well-suited for hiring a whole staff of people to work on a hotline where they're working from various scripts and rules.

So, some of the reasons why mass murder is so unsuitable for a help line are the exact same reasons why the news has made you are very aware of mass shootings.
posted by John Cohen at 12:09 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like your main goal is research. If so, it would probably be better to interview the people already convicted and incarcerated. They are already paying for their crime, so telling you more about how and why they did it is unlikely to be a problem.
posted by Michele in California at 12:10 PM on September 4, 2012

What would be the motivation for someone to call this hotline? It seems that suicide hotlines are for people who don't actually want to commit suicide, but feel driven to it out of desperation. Are there people who commit mass shootings who don't actually want to commit mass shootings?
posted by the jam at 12:14 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know a lot of people who are angry and have homicidal thoughts on a daily basis that they don't tell anyone about because they're afraid of mandated reporters.

I think if you could get rid of mandated reporting law, a homicide hotline would be AMAZING.

But I don't think that will ever happen.
posted by corb at 1:27 PM on September 4, 2012

Are there people who commit mass shootings who don't actually want to commit mass shootings?

People are seldom of one mind about anything. Someone who is frightened of their own thoughts of mass shootings would make good use of a hotline like this.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:53 PM on September 4, 2012

But that brings us to another problem connected with mandated reporting and a line of this type. Let's say that I'm mentally unstable, and have thoughts about shooting a bunch of people, but have not made specific plans or preparations to do so. I call this line (or any kind of mental help line) and start talking about it in general terms - "sometimes I'm standing in line for the elevator at work and I just fantasize about mowing everyone down..."

Is this a situation calling for reporting? I don't know, and I'd really hate for anyone short of a trained counselor who has seen this patient one on one to make that call. My gut tells me to err on the side of reporting, but if we reported everyone who ever said "I just felt like killing someone..." I can't imagine the strain on the mental health system.

IANAD, but another practical problem seems to me to be this: the typical person who actually commits this kind of murder (or serial murders) seems (at least from the news accounts) to be a sociopath who isn't going to reach out for help the way a suicidal and/or depressed person might. I'm not saying that in the casual, pejorative sense - my understanding of what a sociopath is includes the idea that they just don't identify with others the way most people, including most people with mental problems, do.
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:02 PM on September 4, 2012

It seems to me that the people who are really certain about committing suicide don't call hotlines. They just do it. The ambivalent ones do it.

Those who commit mass murder are seriously deranged, and unlikely to be ambivalent about their actions.
posted by zachawry at 5:05 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is an element of attention and power seeking that mass killers have that would make a hotline, manned by (presumably) mandated reporters, or just by People Who Knew It Was Coming But Were Helpless To Stop It...

...would possibly find awfully attractive.

Plus, if you make it seem so frequent as to merit its own hotline - more people might get ideas. These crimes replicate through publicity.

The nature of the crime really just sounds like something a hotline would encourage.

If you had a hotline for battery or child abuse, though, some people who commit those crimes are conscientious individuals who would use a resource to do better if it were easily available.
posted by tel3path at 6:34 PM on September 4, 2012

OP, I think the idea of talking to your professors is a very good one, and I want to strongly recommend that you do it, no matter what the outcome of this thread, because most of us don't have a lot of basis for our opinions. There have been some good points raised here, but there are also a lot of uninformed, biased, hunch-based, and ideological points being argued here too. I'd hate to think you gave up your inquiry because a handful of people who happened to be online when you asled pre-emptively concluded your idea wouldn't work or isn't of value, based on no research.

I think you should talk to people in public health and criminology who have studied this at greater depth before you decide your idea is or isn't viable. In other words, though there are many questions about practicality, value, and implementation, and I don't mean to diminish those questions at all, you have an idea good enough to pursue some discussion with knowledgeable, informed people who have access to data and understand the historiography of the problem - what's been tried, what hasn't, what worked, what didn't. Then, at least, you'd know something more about where to start in addressing this very concerning problem.
posted by Miko at 7:20 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

By the way, after chatting with a few Mandatory Reporters it's pretty clear that threats of mass violence don't appear in their responsibilities at all. The rules that cover that are the Duty To Warn in the APA's ethical guidelines.

The lack of a legal standard could make it very tough to determine what had to be reported to the police and what didn't. To protect yourself from lawsuits you would most likely end up reporting anything.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:45 PM on September 6, 2012

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