The Sandy Hook School Shooting, Mass Murder And Mental Health Reform: Parts 1 and 2

istock_000005543513smallWhen I was in undergrad, I took a class called Mass Murder in the United States.

I picked up that book today and perused through it. It was published in 2000 and due to the number of mass murders that have taken place over the last

12 years, it felt severely outdated (although much of the psychological information in it remains relevant).

Unfortunately our country has a long history of mass murder with the number of incidents and victims increasing over the years, especially in the last 10.

After tragedies like the one that happened Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it’s common that many people start wanting gun reforms and bands on assault refiles. Something that often gets overlooked, but now is finally getting some attention, is mental health reform.

According to research done by Mother Jones in November, no less than 80 percent of mass shooters obtained their guns legally.

In the 61 cases they looked at in the United States over the last 30 years, at least 38 of the shooters displayed signs of mental problems before the shootings.

This happens way too often. While assault rifle bands get the attention during terrible mass shootings, the mental health component often goes largely ignored, despite the fact that it often plays a crucial role.

Many of these perpetrators in the study done by Mother Jones had acute paranoia, delusions, hallucinations and/or depression.

At least 35 of the 61 perpetrators killed themselves at or near the scene with 7 others appearing to have committed suicide by cop.

Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 and injured 23 during the Virgina Tech shootings in 2007, was found mentally ill and in need of hospitalization during a psychiatric evaluation in 2005.

Jared Loughner, who shot 19 people including former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, had displayed signs of mental illness many years before the shooting, including yelling out in class and complaining about hearing voices. Still, he was able to purchase a gun and ammunition without a problem.

One of the bystanders who helped subdue Loughner that day after he stopped to reload, Patricia Maisch stated, “That beautiful day, our mental-health system failed us.”

Could many of the mass shootings we’ve seen over the past few years (at least 26 in the past seven years alone) been prevented with better mental health reform?

That’s not an easy question to answer because it takes into account the issues of civil liberties, medical ethics, and gun laws.

In our country, we want to make sure that everyone has the same rights to bare arms, even those with mental problems, but we have to try to figure out a way of keeping guns out of the hands of those likely to use them to inflict horror on our society.

At the minimum we need to look at how we are treating those with severe mental problems.

Our mental health system is broken, plain and simple. I’ve worked in many facets of the mental health system to know that it’s the truth.

Look around you. I am sure you know someone who has fallen through the system, needs help and is walking around with a mental illness that isn’t being addressed properly if at all. If not, just take a look at our staggering homeless population, many of which suffer from mental illnesses that are not being treated.

Too many states are cutting funding for those with mental illnesses and many people that need to be hospitalized, simply aren’t because so many mental institutions have been closed down due to lack of funding.

In the United States you are allowed to be mentally ill, which means that you can be diagnosed with a severe mental illness and allowed to not take medication, not see a psychiatrist/therapist and pretty much be ignored unless you draw attention to yourself.

It’s your right.

As a licensed mental health counselor in the state of Florida, I have the right to involuntarily hospitalize someone that is an imminent danger to them self/others or is at risk of self harm (i.e., running through traffic in a manic rage), but not the right to involuntarily hospitalize someone who is actively hearing voices or hallucinating, as long as they are in touch with reality and aren’t a danger to themselves or others, even if I know that person needs treatment.

Of course not all mass murders are done by people who are mentally ill. Some do it to seek revenge or have other troubles, but I can’t ignore the role that mental illness, including depression in young men, plays in mass murders.

Part 2: Stima Associated With Mental Illness May Increase Chances For Violence. depressed-teen-istock

I hate when tragedies like this happen because it often puts a stigma on those with mental illnesses who already have enough stigma.

Most people with mental illnesses, including schizophrenia are not violent. However, having schizophrenia makes a person twice as likely to be violent than a person without schizophrenia.

A person who has schizophrenia and a substance problem is about 20 times more likely to kill a person than someone without schizophrenia, so we can’t ignore the statistics.

The stigmatization of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, often make it worse for those with it, causing exacerbation of existing symptoms of delusions, disconnection from reality, social withdrawal and lack of emotions.

I’ve talked previously about how many men with depression don’t seek help because of the stigma that goes along with a man seeking help for his problems (check out my post on Javon Belcher) and how that can turn deadly in the form of suicide, murder or in rare cases, mass murder.

A patient with schizophrenia, a former academic wrote anonymously about her experience with social stigma from her disease (via writer David Dobbs at Wired):

“I was diagnosed with schizophrenia just a month after Steven Kazmierczak (quickly identified as “schizoaffective”) shot six people to death on the campus of [Northern Illinois University] … Undoubtedly primed by this shooting, wary, uncertain, without enough time to think, my doctoral adviser suspended my graduate assistantship, banned me from the university, and alerted all faculty, graduate students and staff to forward all emails [from me] to her and, under no circumstances, respond.”

Her adviser unfortunately thought that she was planning to plant a bomb on campus, and although the decision to suspend her was reversed in about a week, the damage was already done:

“Friends — my doctoral cohort, as is often the case, were a close and tight-knit group — abandoned me overnight. Students and faculty passed me in the halls, staring ahead blankly as if I were an undergraduate they had never seen and would never see again. Parties were announced, talked about, and I was never invited. Never again.”

The social rejection exacerbated her illness. She became afraid to be around people, stopped attending classes and functions on campus:

For a while I struggled through classes, overwhelmed, perhaps in equal measure, by delusions and this new and unprecedented isolation. Voices took the places of both professors and friends. Following a hospitalization (and consequent withdrawal from a semester’s worth of classes), I descended into a state of the most stunning dysfunction, unable (or simply unmotivated) even to walk from my bed to the bathroom.

Eventually she was dismissed from her program:

Everything I have ever been told was a lie. My one way out — of poverty, desperation, madness — was never more than an illusion. And then disbelief. And then, how will I ever explain this to anyone, to family, to old mentors? And then betrayal. No language this time, no thoughts; crying, crying for hours. Alcohol, unconsciousness, unbidden dreams. Even there: repeating their words, over and over and over again. Isolation so intense, there is no way I will ever bridge it. I am lost. Days go by, weeks.

Eventually her thoughts turned to violence and self-destruction:

I fixated on a single vision, me, sometimes hanging, sometimes with gun in hand and a pool of blood on the floor, outside [her former adviser’s] office. Suicide, yes, obviously, but also something more: revenge.

This person never went through with murder or violence, but she says that she understands how someone in her situation would want to commit mass murder. This is sometimes the spiraling down process of someone with a mental illness who commits mass murder.

We have to do something about our mental health system if we don’t want to see a continuation or rise in the amount of mass murder in our country.

Maybe we need stronger gun laws that don’t allow someone who has been involuntarily committed to a hospital because of a mental illness or found mentally incapacitated to purchase guns without a thorough psychiatric evaluation and extensive cooling off period, if at all.

It’s time for the leaders of our states, our country, to sit down and have a serious conversation for the well-being of our nation’s mental health.

For more information on the Mother Jones research, check out the site below: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map

5 thoughts on “The Sandy Hook School Shooting, Mass Murder And Mental Health Reform: Parts 1 and 2

  1. I have spent some time as a mental health professional. I watched the closing of Willowbrook, I had clients at Creedmore in New York. I worked at Belchertown State school in Massachusetts just after the consent decree was enacted. I lived a town away from Northhampton when its Mental Health hospital was closed. Northhampton still lives in the wake of its closing. There are people on the streets today (in Northhampton) that are in serious need of help. What went on in those institutions was wrong. The closing was nothing less than dumping people with serious illness into just another bad situation. That was equally as wrong as the institution. We now are paying the price for our failed mental health system.

    Assault weapons were designed for the sole purpose of killing quickly. While I agree that assault weapons do not have a place in our society, banning them will not change the act of a person motivated to commit these terrible acts. Those bent on mass murder will simply resort to suicide bombing or other means which i choose not to write about least I plant an idea for alternatives.

    What we need is a mental Health system that identifies and treats all levels of mental health problems. It should not be a stigma to seek professional help for depression, or any other socially isolating, dibilitating condition. If I interpolate you numbers above, two thirds of those that committed these murders had a history of mental illness and we can expect to see about four of these a year.

    In my opinion we have not eliminated the “snake pit” we just have made it larger.

    1. I totally agree with everything you said. I worked in a psychiatric facility that just didn’t have the funding to keep people there for as long as they should. The jails have become the new mental health institutions although they are no designed to treat and help the mentally ill effectively. I was one told that the Miami-Dade County jail is the largest “mental institution” in the country. People with serious mental illnesses have definitely been dumped on the streets, in jails and on family members and rarely get the help needed. Thank you so much for your comment.

  2. i have NO expertise or experience in this area, but i recall listening to an interview, maybe on NPR, about a tremendous shortage of facilities and resources to treat mental health needs in this country and how the brunt of dealing with it has been placed on our prison system which is not equipped. how people are arrested, perhaps evaluated or treated temporarily but long term care is lacking? as i was reading many posts on FB about gun control, i kept thinking the real issue is mental health awareness. treatment. facilities etc… i’m feeling a little discouraged at what seems like an impossibly huge ship to turn around.

    1. I totally agree with you. It’s a huge ship that has been ignored and allowed to go in the wrong direction for so long. When I worked in the psychiatric hospital, almost every night we would get a bus full of inmates with severe mental issues being released from the jail, that the jail couldn’t hold on whatever charges any longer, but they didn’t feel safe allowing these people back on the streets because of their mental state. We would only hold them for another day or two due to lack of space and them not having insurance in most cases, and then release them back on the streets anyway. Sad. Thanks so much for reading and responding. I enjoy hearing other people’s views and opinions.

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