This post deviates from the overall direction of this blog page in that it does not follow the concept of covering the major mental illnesses and relevant information. Instead, this post is a response to the most recent mass murder of both adults and children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Everybody has had some reaction to this level of violence, perhaps due to the ages of the victims, or to the occurrence of another senseless shooting. But, as part of the mental health community, I hear the voices from many sources that have a great deal of noise and very little balanced consideration for the complexity of the issue of mass murder. It may be a completely valid visceral reaction that I hear, but many of the loudest voices are not qualified as professionals to guide a meaningful discussion of the issues. In some cases, the comments are from vested interests; in others, it is a reflection of the complicated time in which we live. In the hope of tempering this conversation I offer the following thoughts, recognizing that there is no single solution, and that we will experience the death of innocent victims again. Whether or not there is a mental illness involved, I count myself among many others that do not have an answer. But, there are some insights that may be helpful in clarifying the murders that are becoming more commonplace, and more of an expected event.
Shortly after all of the most recent shootings, there has been a constant barrage of conversation about guns and gun violence. Both sides of the issue are fierce, with the second amendment proponents being concerned about losing their right to bear arms, and the detractors fearing that more guns will lead to more violence. But, as a nation, we already have more guns per capita than any other civilized country. And, most gun owners are responsible with weapons and are not committing mass murder. Certainly there should be a debate about assault guns with high capacity clips and magazines, but again, we have millions of these weapons in circulation already. The federal law concerning background checks is another area for consideration. We know that about 40% of all guns sold occur in the secondary market, gun shows and private sales and these sales require no background check. And, in addition, there are the guns stolen from residential burglary. So, although there is a lot of gun commentary, there is very little that can actually be done with “more control”.
The next most loudly trumpeted reason for the mass murders is the violence in movies, TV, and video games. And clearly, we have become somewhat desensitized to the violence that we see in these venues and on the news program. It seems as if every day there is a shooting, stabbing, or other violent act in many communities. The only difference is in the level of numbers. Only the high body count murders make national news. We will have to leave it to the sociologists to decide if the violence in entertainment is a reflection of reality, or if the reality is being driven by the entertainment industry. But, we also run squarely into the first amendment when we try to control free speech.
The one aspect that seems most perplexing is the discussion of the shooter themselves. As citizens, we have only limited information with regard to the information harvested from each of these incidents. But we do have some general guidelines about the individuals involved. Many are solo shooters with the most recent exception being the Columbine murders. But the profile offered is that the event has been considered for some period of time, that the weapons required are obtained, there is a plan for implementation, and there is an end game; the shooter dies by a self-inflicted gunshot. So, the act is organized, premeditated, and there is an exit strategy. Additionally, the shooter is often described as a loner, somewhat socially ill at ease, and at times, either writes about or talks about his/her intentions and seeks notoriety. (As a thought, it might be helpful to not even report the shooters name or plaster his image on the news to take away the 15 minutes of interest in him). But this profile does not necessarily describe a mental illness but rather a skewed state of mind. And, this is the most problematic concern with regard to identifying a potential killer.
This is what I consider the truly grey area of our mental health system. For those patients who have demonstrated a valid mental illness, there is treatment. Most are identified by parents, teachers, or others in the patient’s life and help is available. But, we have laws that protect an individual from being forced into treatment unless they have demonstrated the desire to harm themselves or others. And, that is the case with many of the shooters that we have seen recently. They simply do not fit the criteria for “forced treatment”. It is very similar for dealing with addiction in that we cannot force an addict to seek treatment unless there is a threat involved. Can we, or should we change the laws protecting our right to free choice? This is a prime example of those “falling between the cracks” and there is no easy answer. But, someone knows the next shooter and they are really at a loss when it comes to intervening unless there is a demonstrable threat.
Perhaps the Vice Presidential task force that was recently named by the president will have some concrete recommendations and constructive dialog to offer a very weary public. I think that we are all tired of hearing that we must do something so that “this never happens again”. But, we all know that it will…