By Oleg Smirnov, Jr and Teddy J. Phillippi
Growing up in South Florida, lock down drills and tornado warnings were commonplace practices. Sitting on a cold floor, lights are shut off, and the only question I kept thinking of was “It won’t happen to us, right?”. Wrong. I would have never thought that the tragedy would strike so close to home. Parkland is a relatively small town in Broward County, located about eight miles away from the high school I attended. Stoneman Douglas High School shooting was a horrific and heinous incident that took lives of seventeen young minds and wounded dozen others. Many students and teachers exemplified a true act of bravery, sacrificing their lives for others.
I have promised myself not to write anything about politics. Nevertheless, I believe that this tragedy, just like many others, could have been prevented if politicians weren’t at each other throats for they can’t agree on how to best lead this country. Each mass shooting reignites a debate about what causes this type of violence and how it can be prevented. I totally understand both sides; Republicans want to keep their beloved personal freedoms that were given to them by the Founding Fathers, while Democrats are wet-dreaming about gun-free zones. However, the publicity regarding mass shootings, unfortunately, overshadows another public health tragedy that affects exponentially more people. Over the span of 5 years, I have come to an understanding that gun control is not the only solution to this widespread violence.
The Trump administration falls in line somewhat with the public on the matter of mental health versus gun control. In his response to Florida shooting tragedy, President Trump spoke almost exclusively of mental health(and the failure of the FBI), and Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would put together a committee to study “the intersection of mental health and criminality and violence” (Olmstead 2018). Debates following these tragic events in the U.S. have become increasingly polarized, with some focused on gun control and others focused on mental health. It is obvious that the argument for mental illness as the root of these problems allows politicians to avoid responsibility, as though these shootings are acts of nature. The real issue here is mental health which is constantly being ignored and pushed to the corner. Yet many question if the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting is an appropriate time to discuss mental health. The ongoing debate is whether or not we should diagnose personality disorders before the ages of 18?
The truth is that even if we could diagnose personality disorders before the age of 18, it would still be inconclusive. Due to the way that the brain develops throughout the lifespan it is implausible, at most, to infer whether or not a person under the age of 18 will develop a personality disorder in the future. The brain reaches its developmental apex between the ages of 22-25; the typical ages that you would be diagnosed with a personality disorder. There are personality disorders exclusive to children, such as oppositional defiant disorder, which is onsets between childhood and adolescence. Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) in particular, typically leads to other personality disorders developing post-adolescence; if untreated. Sadly, it often-times does go untreated; mistaken for a different mental health related issue like ADHD. Nevertheless, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “The start of many mental health conditions most often occurs in adolescence. Half of individuals living with mental illness experience onset by the age of 14. This number jumps to 75% by the age of 24. One in five youth live with a mental health condition, but less than half of these individuals receive needed services”.
I’m sure that you already have a certain level of familiarity with disorders. As a psychology major, I am very familiar with the subject of mental health. According to the definition of mentalhealth.gov, “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices”. Over the course of our lives, if you experience mental health problems, your thinking, mood, and behavior could be affected. Many factors contribute to mental health problems, such as biological factors, life experiences, and genetics. It’s likely that one of your friends or family members have a disorder. According to the NIH, “26.2% of Americans have a diagnosable mental disorder.” (NIH, 2013). Although, you may be familiar with disorders, a lot of the “facts” you’ve been told have been misconstrued; thanks to the media’s desire to fit their narrative. Some of the information they convey has as much of a basis in reality as the opinions of flat-earth truthers.
Firstly, the notion that mental disorders are the culprit in all of these shootings is facetious and wholly inaccurate. In fact, in over half of all shootings that involve an individual with a mental disorder, they are the victim; not the perpetrator. The media seems to think that if we fix mental health, then we’ll fix the pattern of mass shootings. This is a baseless and completely false notion, period. There are very few mental disorders that involve the diagnostic criterion “homicidal tendencies”. While a mass shooter may not have a recognized and diagnosed mental disorder, his cognitive perception may be disturbed due to many social factors. Factors common among individuals who commit mass murder include extreme feelings of anger and revenge, the lack of an accomplice (when the perpetrator is an adult), feelings of social alienation, and planning well in advance of the offense (Knoll 2016). You may ask, “If mental disorders aren’t the culprit, then are the people committing these atrocities are just like you and I?” Short answer, no. Let me explain.
Individuals who commit mass murder do indeed have an abnormal mental condition. Although, this mental condition is not necessarily indicative of a disorder. The reason that these individuals commit these heinous acts may be attributable to sociopathy and psychopathy. The two are similar, yet have one markedly major difference. Sociopaths have a skewed moral compass relative to societal standards, while psychopaths completely lack even a semblance of morality. Sociopathy and psychopathy are not mental disorders. A mental disorder diagnosis requires that your daily functioning is impaired by your condition. So while a shooter may not have a diagnosed mental disorder, his mental health may be affected by many social factors, including isolation, possible ostracism by peers, and an absence of prosocial supports. In sum, the extant research on mass murders suggests that these events are caused by a complex interaction of emotional turmoil, psychopathology, traumatic life events, and other precipitating factors unique to each case (Declercq and Audenaert 2011).
There’s still a lot we don’t understand about mass shootings. It is only fair to say that there are many theories of why crime happens to begin with. Merton’s Theory of Anomiesuggests that crime happens due to a dysfunction between the American dream of success and the lack of means to achieve it. Robert Agnew’s Theoryclaims that crime happens due to negative relationships in which individuals feel that they are being mistreated. Finally, Hirschi’s Social Bond Theorystates that delinquency takes place when a person’s bonds to society are weakened or broken. Hirschi proposes four social factors that determine social and emotional stability and that can lead to criminal acts.
- Attachment refers to a bond to others (family, friends, classmates) and important institutions (school, church, clubs). Weak attachment bonds may impair personality development and are viewed as particularly instrumental in delinquency.
- Commitment involves the degree to which an individual maintains a vested interest in social and economic system (status, job, community standing). If an individual does not have a commitment, he/she is more likely to violate the law.
- Involvement entails engagement in legitimate social and recreational activities that either leaves too little time to get into trouble or binds one’s status to yet other important groups whose esteem one wishes to maintain.
- Belief in the conventional norms and values system and the law acts as a bond to society.
In the case of Florida shooter, Nikolas Cruz, had no attachments with his family (his adoptive father died in 2004 and adoptive mother died in November 2017) or classmates (due to behavioral issues, he transferred between schools six times in three years to deal with these problems). While Cruz have participated in afterschool activities, such as Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and varsity air rifle team, he didn’t not respect his statusand was constantly accused of disciplinary actions. An email from the school administration warned faculty and staff that Cruz has made threats against other students (which led the school to ban him from wearing a backpack on campus). Furthermore, Nikolas Cruz was constantly expressing his hatred via social media accounts as they contained pictures and posts of him with a variety of weapons, including long knives, a shotgun, a pistol, and a BB gun. Police also said that he held “extremist” views as his social media accounts contained anti-blackand anti-Muslim slurs. The sheriff’s office received a number of tips in 2016 and 2017 about Cruz’s threats to carry out a school shooting. Teachers, staff, and his classmates knew that there was something wrong with him, but prefered to keep it to themselves. In February 2017, he legally purchased an AR-15 style rifle from a Coral Springs gun store. A year later, he used this weapon to commit the mass shooting at his former school.
For a psychological perspective, I understand why many fail to report Cruz to appropriate institutions. Optimism bias is the belief that each of us is more likely to experience good outcomes and less likely to experience bad outcomes. This is why warning labels don’t seem to work. For example, we all have seen warning labels spelling out the health consequences of cigarettes. Nevertheless, about 500,000 people die from using tobacco products every year. Same goes to drunk-driving (10,000 people die every year in alcohol-related traffic accidents) and safe sex (about 40,000 new HIV cases each year) (Osbaldiston). The thought of “this will not happen to me” is what causes tragedy and doesn’t allow teachers and adults to properly prepare themselves or identify warning signs.
In 2002, the U.S. Secret Service released its report on a study of 37 school shootings involving 41 attackers. They reviewed investigative, school, court, and mental health records and interviewed 10 attackers. Below are the highlights of this report:
- Attackers talk about their plans: prior most incidents, the attacher told someone (a friend, schoolmate, sibling) about his idea of a possible attack. In most cases, no one brought this information to adult’s attention.
- Attackers make plans:incidents at targeted schools are rarely impulsive. In almost all of the incidents, the attacker developed the idea about harming the target before the attack (most formulated the idea of an attack at least 2 weeks in advance).
- Attackers had easy access to guns: most attackers had used guns previously and has access to guns used in attack from their own home or that of a relative.
- Attackers are encouraged by others: in many cases, other students were involved in some capacity, While most of the attackers acted alone, in almost half of the cases, friends or fellow students influenced or encouraged the attacker to act. Advanced knowledge among students about the planned incidents contradicts the assumption that shooters are loners or that “they just snap”
- Bullying can be a factor: in a number of cases, bullying played a key role in the decision to attack. A number of attackers has experienced bullying and harassment that were long-standing and severe, In those cases, the experience of bullying appeared to play a major role in motivating the attack of the school.
- Warning signs are common: most attackers were engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused concern or indicated a need for help. In more than half of the cases, the attacker’s behavior caught the attention of more than one person. A significant problem in preventing targeted violence is determining how best to respond to students who are already known to be in trouble. This study indicates the importance of giving attention to students who are having difficulty in coping with major losses or perceived failures, particularly when feelings or desperation and hopelessness are involved.
Source: excerpts from “Preventing School Shootings: A Summary of a U.S. Secret Service Safe School Initiative Report”. NIJ Journal, 248 (2002), 11-15, NCJ 190633.
On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho brutally killed 32 people and wounded many more. Cho fit the classes profile of a school shooter. He was a “loner”, and he felt that he was picked on and made fun of. He was bullied due to speech difficulties and also has a history of mental problems. Several of his professors found his writing for class assignments to be very disturbing and had encourage him to seek counseling. In 2005, he has been declared mentally ill by a Virginia special justice and ordered to seek treatment. Despite his documented medical problems, Cho was able to purchase two semi automatic firearms (Hauser 2007).
The current status of mental health awareness needs improvement.While Trump keep emphasizing ‘mental health’ over gun control, nothing is being done for either. According to this research, only one-third of the people who have committed mass shootings in the U.S. since 1900 had sought or received mental health care prior to their attacks, which suggests that most shooters did not seek or receive care they may have needed. Mr. Cruz had suffered from depression and was getting counseling at one point. He was also evaluated by emergency mental health workers in 2016, but they decided not to hospitalize him. Why, some critics are demanding, didn’t he receive proper treatment? How come we are unable to stop young men like him from buying firearms? Unfortunately, the mental health system doesn’t identify most of these people because they don’t come in to get care. And even if they do, laws designed to preserve the civil liberties of people with mental illness place limits on what treatments can be imposed against a person’s will (Barnhorst 2016). In most states, patients must be a danger to themselves or others because of mental illness before they can be involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Another reason some are reluctant to establish the link between mass shootings and mental illness is a fear that it will lead to the stigmatization of such disorders. This concern is valid. The vast majority of people with mental disorders are not violent, after all (Duwe 2018).
I am not claiming that that mass public shootings are strictly a mental health problem rather than a gun problem. It’s possible for mass public shootings to be both a gun problem and a mental health problem. However, is it evident that an increasing access to mental health care may reduce mass public shootings. Should we consider individuals who make death threats as potentially dangerous to the society and their peers? I believe yes, absolutely. But while such events are more commonplace than they should be, the reality may be that they’re still too rare to develop and implement policies that reduce their incidence or severity specifically. While the media suggests that a majority of guns used in mass shootings were bought legally and with a federal background check, the truth is that a majority of perpetrators (68%) acquired guns used from their own or a relative’s home (U.S. Secret Service). Therefore, the main question is “How do you catch that?”. Simple, pay attention. If you see someone who is antisocial, exhibiting irrational yet concerted behavior, and they lack emotional sensitivity to the suffering of others, then talk to your teachers. We need to stop being reactive to these incidences, and start being proactive. This probably won’t be entirely effective through behavioral intervention alone, at least not until we get improve firearm regulation laws in this country. Until then, we will be the land of the bias and the home of the brutalized.
Olmstead, Molly. “More Americans Blame Mass Shootings on Mental Health Than on Gun Laws, New Poll Finds.” Slate Magazine, The Slate Group, 20 Feb. 2018, www.slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/02/abc-and-washington-post-poll-finds-americans-blame-mental-health-more-than-gun-control-for-shootings.html.
“What Is Mental Health?” MentalHealth.gov, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 28 Aug. 2017, www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/what-is-mental-health.
Duwe, Grant. “Actually, There Is a Clear Link between Mass Shootings and Mental Illness.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 23 Feb. 2018, www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-duwe-rocque-mass-shootings-mental-illness-20180223-story.html.
Barnhorst, Amy. “The Mental Health System Can’t Stop Mass Shooters.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/20/opinion/mental-health-stopping-mass-shooters.html.
Osbaldiston, Richard. “‘It Won’t Happen to Me’: The Optimism Bias.” “It Won’t Happen to Me”: The Optimism Bias | Online Psychology Degree, Eastern Kentucky University, 2 Mar. 2016, www.psychonline.eku.edu/insidelook/“it-won’t-happen-me”-optimism-bias.
Knoll , James L, and George D Annas. “Mass Shootings and Mental Illness.”American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2016, pp. 81–104.
“Preventing School Shootings: A Summary of a U.S. Secret Service Safe School Initiative Report”. NIJ Journal, 248 (2002), 11-15, NCJ 190633.
Hauser, Virginia. “Virginia Tech Shooting Leaves 33 Dead”, The New York Times, April 16, 2007.
Oleg Smirnov, Jr and Teddy J. Phillippi are psychology students at West Virginia University