Mental Illness and Mass Shooting
In the United States, there is a vast narrative that mental illness and mass shooting go hand in hand. While it may be a factor for someone to go into a mass shooting, I don’t think it’s the main reason. Jonathan Metzl, a Professor of Sociology and Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, points to studies in a paper he co-wrote “that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims not perpetrators of violence, and that very few violent acts-about 3-5 percent- are carried out by the mentally ill.” He states “that while mental illness can be a contributor to some violent behaviors, other factors such as substance abuse, poverty, history of violence, and access to guns- are much stronger predictors of violence and shootings.”
Why would anyone go and kill a bunch of innocents if they didn’t lose touch with reality?
Before, I always associated mass shootings with individuals who had severe, unbridled mental illness. Why would anyone go and kill a bunch of innocents if they didn’t lose touch with reality? The more academic papers and articles I read, the more I found that it’s not a black and white topic; it’s quite gray, like many others.
Dr. Peter Langman, a sought-after expert on the psychology of school shooters and author of the book, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters,” based his research that shooters tend to fall into three psychological types: traumatized shooters, psychotic shooters, and psychopathic shooters.
Traumatized shooters come from chronically dysfunctional families that are often associated with parental substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, many locations, and changing caregivers. Sixteen-year-old Evan Ramsey is an example of a traumatized mass shooter. On February 19, 1997, he perpetrated a shooting at Bethel Regional High School in Bethel, Alaska. He killed two people and wounded two others. Initially, the rampage was planned out as a suicide, but Ramsey’s two friends talked him into killing other people.
When Ramsey was seven years old, his father went to a newspaper office with at least two guns because the paper refused to publish a letter he wrote.
Ramsey’s life before the shooting was chaotic. When Ramsey was seven years old, his father went to a newspaper office with at least two guns because the paper refused to publish a letter he wrote. The father chained the doors of the offices shut, set off smoke grenades, fired his weapons, and held the publisher hostage. He ended up in jail for ten years. Ramsey’s mother became an alcoholic while his father was in prison. She moved in and out with alcoholic, abusive men resulting in Ramsey and his siblings moving into foster care. He went to a series of ten foster homes in a two year period, and one of the foster homes was physically and sexually abused. Ramsey did not indicate psychosis or psychopathy, but an unfortunate, traumatic family history with friends who encouraged him to kill.
Psychotic shooters are the stereotype of mass shooters we often see and hear in the media. They have schizophrenia or schizotypal personality, with a combination of psychotic symptoms (hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thoughts/behavior), eccentric behavior and beliefs, and severely impaired social/emotional functioning. A well-known psychotic shooter is Seung-Hui Cho. Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before killing himself on April 16, 2007.
During his years in college, Cho had symptoms of schizophrenia that included poverty of speech and affective flattening. When he did speak, he spoke about having a supermodel girlfriend from outer space, and claiming that he knew Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
He compared himself to the prophet Moses and believed that he was leading a mass movement of people and would go down in history as a great leader.
The manifesto Cho wrote about his attack at Virginia Tech gave clues of his grandiose and paranoid delusions. He compared himself to the prophet Moses and believed that he was leading a mass movement of people and would go down in history as a great leader. He also thought that he was on the verge of annihilation and he justified his attack as a response to “attempts” to destroy him.
Remember, someone who has schizophrenia or schizotypal personality disorder doesn’t automatically make them prone to gun violence.
This is an extreme example where mental illness played a huge factor in gun violence. It was a terrible event that resulted in the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in the United States and one of the fatal shootings by a single gunman worldwide. Remember, someone who has schizophrenia or schizotypal personality disorder doesn’t automatically make them prone to gun violence. People who have these disorders are often too lethargic to get out of their home.
They are categorized as narcissistic, entitled, lacking in empathy, sadistic, and skilled in impression management.
I think psychopathic shooters are the most unpredictable of the three types. They are categorized as narcissistic, entitled, lacking in empathy, sadistic, and skilled in impression management. They have intact families with no evidence of abuse or neglect and have no known mental illnesses or disorders.
Eric Harris, one-half of the unit that committed the Columbine High School shooting rampage, is an example of a psychopathic shooter. He and his partner, Dylan Klebold, went on a shooting spree at Columbine High School and murdered twelve students and one teacher. They injured 21 other people before committing suicide.
He took pleasure in lying to people and getting away with things.
Harris came from an intact well-functioning family. His father was a U.S. Air Force transport pilot, his mother a homemaker, while his brother attended the local college. Despite the stable upbringing, he was a skilled manipulator. He took pleasure in lying to people and getting away with things. His journal writings include bragging that he was able to make school administrators believe that he was going to climb Mount Everest or that he had a twin brother growing from his back. He broke many laws before the shooting such as vandalizing peers’ homes, buying guns illegally, hacking into the school’s computer system, and engaging in credit card fraud. He disliked morality, rules, and social norms way before planning his rampage with his crime partner.
In contrast to traumatized and psychotic shooters, a psychopathic shooter’s reasons seem to come out of thin air. Their background is stable, and they have no known mental problems, what would make them want to go out and kill innocents? At least with potential traumatized and psychotic shooters, there is therapy and medication. How do you convince a potential psychopathic killer, who is aware their actions hurt others, to stop their behavior? How do you convince them to get help when they just don’t care?
Similarly to terrorism, there is no silver bullet to stop mass shooting.
2015 has been a year where I couldn’t stop hearing about mass shootings. As much delegation and arguments have been had to decrease them, nothing has happened. Similarly to terrorism, there is no silver bullet to stop a mass shooting. It is a multidimensional problem that has variables that include family upbringing, mental illness, and access to guns. Instead of attacking the problem on one side (e.g., it’s a mental illness problem, it’s a gun control problem) the question needs to be addressed from a variety of different fronts.
Photo: Cho Seung-hui, painted portrait DDC_0719 by Thierry Ehrmann https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode.