What can we do to make sure this never happens again? It’s the common sentiment in the form of a question that most of us toss about, and fewer of us work hard to answer, after tragedies like the Newtown massacre.
Preventing violence has many forms. The kind of prevention we practice the most is the kind that takes place after violence has occurred. This prevention aims to decrease the negative effects of the violence on the victims and to keep the problem from happening again. Examples of this type of prevention include crisis services for victims, interventions with offenders, and policy changes. The official name for what I call “well-after-the-fact prevention” is tertiary prevention.
Sometimes we’re on the ball earlier. We realize that violence is likely to happen, and we take action to deter it. We still have a problem, but less damage has been done by the time we intervene. Examples of this type of prevention include educational activities, media campaigns, community-based programs, and enforcement of appropriate sanctions. This is formally called secondary prevention—what I think of as “in-the-midst-of-an-emerging-problem prevention.”
Primary prevention is the type of prevention that we should think of first but usually consider last, if at all. Primary prevention is the often-neglected gold standard in the violence prevention world. This is the “pre-problem prevention” that focuses on addressing the risk factors associated with perpetrating violence. Primary prevention efforts strive to keep individuals from developing the characteristics that allow them to see violence as a viable option.
Tertiary prevention tends to get more attention and support. It’s all about healing. Risk factors for perpetrating violence don’t play any role in this approach, and most of us can’t name the qualities that are tied to violent behavior.
However, if we want to be more effective in our efforts to prevent violence, we need to be aware of the factors that increase the risk of perpetrating violence. And then we need to take steps to counteract those factors from rearing their ugly heads.