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A Brit’s perspective on mass shootings, Part 1

Originally published in the Bat Country Word. Look for Part Two on Monday.

Part One of Three – Introduction, a Few Truths, and Mental Health

Aurora suspect James Holmes

Accused Aurora, CO shooter James Holmes. Could improved mental health screening really prevent future shootings?

This series sets out to examine some of the psychosocial factors that conspire to create public massacres like those at Sandy Hook and Aurora, Colorado. It’s about how the hot base metals of a society blend in the alchemist’s crucible to produce a cold mass-murderer. Also addressed will be some social changes that are hoped will promote safer societies, such as access to mental health care and gun controls. Both are likely worthy aims and of benefit to society, but will they make a difference to the mass killings?

A few other good ideas are thrown in for good measure, naive and romantic though they may be (see part 3). Also noted is that public massacres occur outside of America too. In the UK there was the Dunblane School incident in 1996 where 15 children died and two adults, counting his own suicide. Hungerford in 1987 and more recently the shootings in Cumbria in 2010 are other UK cases. All examples here are drawn from Europe and America. The article refers exclusively to the West and NATO, its dirty activities and the noxious consequences.

Much media speculation has arisen about the mental health of the predominantly white young men who become these mass murderers, perhaps because they are predominantly white and not Afro-Caribbean or from the Middle East. (Were they anything but Caucasian they’d more likely be “gangsters” or “Islamic terrorists”.) They must have all been mentally ill to target groups of vulnerable people in schools, colleges or cinemas and open fire, right?

Adam Lanza was reported by his brother to be on the autistic spectrum and by other family and friends to have a diagnosis of Asperser’s Syndrome. Mental health advocates rightly were quick to point out that autism is a psychological developmental issue, not a mental illness, and as a condition not commonly associated with homicidal behaviour. James Holmes’ mental health has also been debated, but he has yet to be confirmed as having any diagnosable mental illness at the time of the Aurora shootings. In Norway 2011 Anders Breivik killed 77 people and injured at least 319 people in two separate incidents on July 22nd. Initially diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he was later reassessed and found to be sane. Thomas Hamilton, the Dunblane killer had complaints made about him and his proximity to young boys, but had no criminal convictions or psychiatric history. Derrick Bird, the Cumbrian gunman who killed 12 and then himself was reported in the local paper to have approached mental health services but was turned away. He was not diagnosed and the weapons in these UK incidents were legally owned. Seung-Hui Cho who killed at 32 Virginia Tech in 2007 did have identified and treated mental health problems. We could continue to profile offenders. The reader can do the same. Some of them had no mental health history, and about 50% did. Even those that did were not prevented from later going on to commit acts of mass murder. None of them were identified by previous homicides. The overwhelming majority of the weapons used were legally obtained.

In the USA wider screening of school children for potential mental health difficulties is being suggested. Unfortunately however the professionals are not able to predict future dangerousness with any great accuracy. Even if they were, there is then a reporting and confidentiality issue. As it stands, unless someone has already hurt someone it is unlikely that they will be detained or medicated for fear of what they might do to another person. That is the realistic scope of any mental health service run with a reasonable ethical or humanitarian code. Sometimes in fear and ignorance society expects or wants more control to be exerted but that is neither pragmatic nor morally correct. So the notion that mental health services can identify future offenders and through treatment or control significantly reduce public massacres might make good politics but it is just not realistic – (Watch this great debate).

Statistically these men are more likely to be personality disordered rather than mentally ill in the classic sense, and as adults would have to put themselves forward for drug treatment or through therapy in a field where both engagement and compliance are notoriously difficult to manage. Some of the most risky types of personality disordered people, the psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists are the most reluctant of all. There is after all nothing wrong with them (in their view).

Of course while these mass murders may not be “psychotic” like schizophrenic or hallucinatory, but rather just have extreme personality disorders, they obviously are not within the confines of behavior that would ever be considered to be socially normal or acceptable –res ipsa loquitur, it proves itself. They might however be seen by some as extreme reactions to an unacceptable world, or at least a world that the perpetrators cannot accept. That said, clinical terms get tossed about by the media in a speculative way, and any formal diagnosis that may yet emerge for Holmes will only inform his punishment. DSM IV (soon to be V) classification does not change what happened and is of little comfort to families and survivors. Also the media may further skew public attitudes towards mental health problems towards greater discrimination and prejudice. That reporting inhibits rather than promotes engagement with services. After all most people with mental health problems are not dangerous to others. In addition it is convenient perhaps for society to view these people as mentally ill in a biological sense. If they were “ill” as a result of dopamine surges or serotonin deficiencies, that mitigates our societies’ collective responsibility in creating these killers. They are after all products of our culture. Perhaps we can all blame the failings of mental health services? That would be comfortable. It is the same enthusiasm to deny cultural ownership of these killers that spawns the conspiracy theories, (which will have no traction here).

Perhaps then, if we cannot stop potential killers we could stop them having access to weapons? Or at least very powerful weapons that kill a lot of people quickly and from a distance. There’s a certain logic to that, and a certain infringement on what some would say are their civil liberties. Getting the balance right without kicking off more trouble is not going to be easy as the new American administration is finding out (see upcoming Part Three of this series). Instead of just advocating for more gun control, we will look at some of the cultural dynamics that might be said to drive folk over the edge. They will use whatever weapons they have to hand, (or even the assault-mouth in Florida). Given some of the horrible and extreme things people do to themselves to relieve emotional stress, we should never underestimate what a few might do to others to achieve the same goal. Guns are therefore seen as the easy method and a soft target politically because of their availability, but they are not the heart of the problem.

Image by DonkeyHotey released under a Creative Commons license.

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