It’s at times like this that I wish I was eloquent. I wish I could adequately convey how much my heart aches for everyone affected by what happened in Connecticut on Friday. My twins are in the first grade at school so you can imagine what I’ve been thinking. When Owen woke up during the night on Friday, I didn’t do what I do normally and take him back to his bed for a cuddle, I grabbed him and brought him to sleep with me. As I started drafting this post on Saturday morning the three of us, Owen, Oliver and I, were all smushed up together on the couch. It was hard to be physically apart from them in the aftermath of that tragedy.
There have been three themes swirling around in my mind since I first heard about this mass murder and I’m sharing them here in the order in which they dominated my thoughts.
Turn off the television
Easy for me to say, I don’t have one. If you can heed the advice though it really is a good idea. I’ve written before about the problems with 24/7 breaking news coverage of mass shootings so I won’t repeat myself but I do encourage you to watch the video below if you haven’t already, as it succinctly outlines some of the reasons why media coverage of these events can be so problematic:
I have seen so much false information pop up on my Facebook and Twitter feed that my conviction with respect to this point is even stronger than it was before. People were reporting the perpetrator as Ryan Lanza before it was his brother Adam. The nature of the weapon(s) used was being disputed. The killer was a parent of one of the kids involved in a domestic dispute with his wife before he was the son of one of the teachers shot dead at school – none of which was accurate. There were the rumours and speculation about the killer’s neurology – he was autistic, had aspergers, a personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, was a loner and friendless … at the time I started writing this post the killer’s identity hadn’t even been confirmed and yet the standard tropes were all being trotted out.
It’s understandable, our need to know is fuelled by a burning desire to understand, to make sense of something senseless. But it takes time and distance before a clear picture of what happened can emerge and all speculation does is create yet another casualty – the truth. It also glorifies evil people when our focus should be on those who are suffering.
Semi-automatic weapons are good at killing lots of people really quickly
In terms of public policy, I’m not reflexively anti-gun. I know people who hunt; it’s certainly not my cup of tea but these folks consume what they kill and, in my admittedly limited experience, are law-abiding, decent people. You know what they don’t use to kill deer though? Semi-automatic weapons.
No-one has yet been able to explain to me how or why U.S. civilians have a constitutional right to own military-grade weaponry. As far as need goes, hunters don’t need them, farmers don’t need them, no-one needs them to adequately protect themselves, their families or their property. Unless you really are preparing for the zombie apocalypse, but then you have larger problems.
Massacres happen worldwide. The difference between most places and the United States is in the reaction to them. In the U.S., people criticize the issue of limiting access to assault weapons as a knee-jerk response that politicizes tragedy. But what about the knee-jerk response that says placing limitations on access to certain weapons can never and should never be considered? Planes don’t kill people either and yet after 9/11 we accepted additional restrictions on individuals who wanted to learn to fly or travel on them. As James Fallows eloquently argued in JULY of this year:
“There will be more [mass shootings]; we absolutely know it; we also know that we will not change the circumstances that allow such episodes to recur. I am an optimist about most things, but not about this. Everyone around the world understands this reality too. It is the kind of thing that makes them consider America dangerous, and mad.”
Stop, stop, PLEASE STOP suggesting that perpetrators of violent crimes have an atypical neurology.
A lot of my friends are doing this in perfectly innocent ways by suggesting that what happened in Connecticut is an indication that we need to focus on the state of the mental health system. Many people have been sharing a blog post in which the writer, talking about her mentally ill son, explicitly compares herself to Adam Lanza’s mother. My friends talk about people falling through the cracks and being poorly served by the system, all of which is both true AND irrelevant. It’s making me angry and I don’t want to be angry right now, especially not with people I like and love.
I’m not a psychiatrist, I didn’t even pretend to be one so I could have input on the DSM V (heh), but for the purposes of this blog post only I’m going to give you my definition of mental illness and mental disability:
- Autism is neither, it is a developmental disability.
- A mental disability is a long-term or permanent condition which doesn’t necessarily prevent an individual from functioning well when they have access to services and support (including medication where necessary). Those affected by bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and major depressive disorder are, in my opinion, mentally disabled and not necessarily mentally ill. I would fall into this category – I can concentrate, work, feed myself, look after my children and get out of bed just fine, as long as I am taking a high dosage of anti-depressants. Lifestyle changes and cognitive behavioural therapy are insufficient, in and of themselves, to prevent me from becoming depressed. I need anti-depressants in order to function in the same way that Type 1 diabetics need insulin in order to live.
- A mental illness is a debilitating state. When an individual is mentally ill it is extremely difficult, often impossible, to function. A mentally ill person can’t work or take care of themselves adequately. An example might be someone suffering from a severely depressive episode in the context of post-partum depression, major depressive disorder or a depressive phase in bi-polar individuals. The mentally ill are typically simply incapable of planning and executing military-style executions of large numbers of people.
- Where does psychopathy fit in? Using my definition it’s not a mental illness because most psychopaths function perfectly adequately – they can do well at school, hold down a job, even run a company. But psychopathy isn’t really a disability either because there are no services or supports that can ameliorate it. What we really definitively know about psychopaths is that we don’t really know that much about them. They’re rare, extremely hard to detect and there’s no “treatment” available. Most psychopaths are sub-criminal so even if we were to screen for them, what are we advocating – locking them away on the off-chance they will run amok and kill people?
If you want an umbrella term to use for all the categories above then atypical neurology is the best I can come up with. What people do when they assume that mass murderers are atypically neurological is perpetuate a vicious cycle that harms and hurts the very people they may be trying to help. Let’s break down this vicious cycle in a way that is admittedly simplistic but also, I believe, accurate.
- The entertainment industry and the news media portray the mentally ill as violent:
“Characters in prime time television portrayed as having a mental illness are depicted as the most dangerous of all demographic groups: 60 percent were shown to be involved in crime or violence” (Mental Health American, 1999).
“Most news accounts portray people with mental illness as dangerous” (Wahl, 1995).
- The public perception of the mentally ill as violent increases.
“A longitudinal study of American’s attitudes on mental health between 1950 and 1996 found, “the proportion of Americans who describe mental illness in terms consistent with violent or dangerous behavior nearly doubled.” Also, the vast majority of Americans believe that persons with mental illnesses pose a threat for violence towards others and themselves (Pescosolido, et al., 1996, Pescosolido et al., 1999).”
- The stigma that is already attached to mental illness increases, as does discrimination against the mentally ill.
The discrimination and stigma associated with mental illnesses stem in part, from the link between mental illness and violence in the minds of the general public (DHHS, 1999, Corrigan, et al., 2002).
The effects of stigma and discrimination are profound. The President’s New Freedom Commission onMental Health found that, “Stigma leads others to avoid living, socializing, or working with, renting to, or employing people with mental disorders – especially severe disorders, such as schizophrenia. It leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking and wanting to pay for care. Responding to stigma, people with mental health problems internalize public attitudes and become so embarrassed or ashamed that they often conceal symptoms and fail to seek treatment (New Freedom Commission, 2003).”
Source for the above quotes.
- Mentally ill people are already at a greater risk of suicide. When we as a society attach further stigma to mental illness it just results in an increase in all the risk factors that make that outcome more likely. Just to put some numbers on how great a threat suicide is in individuals with major depressive order, this study found that the mortality rate from suicide ranged from 20%, to 41% in the case of individuals who suffered from psychotic depression.
Don’t just take my word for it – here are two posts outlining the stigma and harmful outcomes that arise when people make assumptions, one from Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg and the other from Neurodivergent K.
Every time any one of us suggests that mass violence is caused by mental illness, we make the situation for the mentally ill worse. I want positive action on mental healthcare too, but only mentioning it when there are school shootings or when men annihilate their families – the data shows that it results in the exact opposite. I understand the assumption that no-one could possibly execute 20 children and be sane. Our brains find it hard to comprehend acts that are incomprehensible but our assumptions usually turn out to be false and always end up being damaging.
Editing to add a link to a blog post: “If you really care about mental health” which makes this exact point far more succinctly than I do.
The data makes it clear – there is in fact a negative correlation between mental illness and violence. Not only are mentally ill people no more likely to commit violent acts than the mentally healthy, they are disproportionately more likely to be the victims of violent crimes. The only exception to this is when substance abuse is involved. The combination of mental illness and substance abuse can result in an increase in violent behaviours but the vast majority of those behaviours (86%) are directed at family members and friends rather than strangers.
So what do we know about the people that commit mass murder?
After Columbine the FBI undertook a study to determine what the profile was for a school shooter. Their conclusion was that… there is no profile of a school shooter. As part of the Safe Schools initiative, the Secret Service and Department of Education also analysed 37 shootings that occurred from 1974 to 2000. Their conclusions about the killers were:
“There is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence.”
- They came from all socio-economic and demographic backgrounds.
- 63% of them lived in two-parent, stable homes.
- Their school grades ranged the gamut from excellent to failing.
- Nearly half of them were socially integrated in terms of friendships and group activities. Only 12% had no close friends.
- In terms of “getting into trouble” at school, 63% had never or only rarely been in any trouble.
- Most of the attackers felt persecuted in some way.
- Two-thirds of attackers had never received a mental health evaluation.
- 25% of the attackers had known substance abuse problems.
- A minority of the attackers showed an interest in violence but none of them had any prior history of violent or even criminal behaviour.
- 78% of them had either attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts. 61% of the attackers had experienced depressive episodes at some point. So, given my criteria outlined above, a large number of these boys could possibly be considered mentally disabled but no evidence was found to indicate that the attacks happened during a time of mental illness. In fact, a small number of the attacks happened at a time when the attackers were improving academically (5%) and disciplinary problems at school were declining (7%).
In terms of how many school shooters could be considered mentally ill, the one area that the data does indicate we should focus on is where the attacker could be affected by a major depressive disorder combined with substance abuse. As I outlined above, we know that when mental illness and substance abuse occur together, there is a risk for increased violence. The typical outcome of that violence is self-directed (suicide) but it can also be directed at family and friends.
The Safe School study uncovered only three things that primarily all the attackers had in common:
- They had suffered a loss or failure prior to the attack. These losses ranged from personal (51% had lost a loved one or an important relationship had ended) to economic (loss of a job) to perceived (66% had suffered some kind of loss in status). Regardless of the nature of the loss, all of the perpetrators were having trouble handling it.
- These were not crimes of passion however. 93% of these attacks were planned well in advance. This supports my hypothesis that the perpetrators were unlikely to be mentally ill at the time of the attacks.
- They were ALL, without exception, young males. They varied in age between 11 and 21, with most attackers being in the 13 to 18 year-old range.
If we want to jump to conclusions about acts of mass violence then let’s jump to one that’s actually supported by some data.
Why are we failing grieving young men and what can we do about it?