The Connecticut shooting: Mental illness is not an answer, so what is?

To blame the Connecticut shooting on mental illness is incorrect and frightening to those who have a psychiatric diagnosis. Mental illness may be one factor out of many in violent acts. Photo: Andy Blackledge

WASHINGTON December 15, 2012 - Violence is the willful act of inflicting harm on others. The perpetrator may or may not have a diagnosable mental health problem. Research does not uphold the idea that dangerousness should be associated with mental illness. With rare exceptions, violence is not committed because someone has a psychiatric diagnosis. 

Considering all types of murder-suicides, they are predominately committed by males who have access to firearms. Access to guns makes it possible for people to act quickly (or plan-fully) on their rage, jealousy, or despair. That is not an opinion. In the first half of 2011 there were 313 incidents of murder-suicide in the U.S. and 89.5% involved firearms. 

In the phenomenon of mass school shootings, the perpetrators are also male and have access to firearms. What everyone wants to understand though is why they use them to kill innocent people. 

Several studies have been done that do not support a link between aggression and violent video games, movies, or TV. What seems more indicative of youth violence is an antisocial personality, a sense of injustice, and a sense of entitlement.  

In the school shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Northern Illinois University, all the shooters lived in rural or suburban settings, were male, and evidenced self-justification concerning their behavior. They also appeared to have an attitude of entitlement about using violence to inflict their pain on others.  

“It wasn’t enough to have been harmed; they also had to believe that they were justified, that their murderous rampage was legitimate. Once they did, they followed the time honored script of the American western: the lone gunman (or gang) retaliates far beyond the initial provocation and destroys others to restore the self.” (Kalish, Kimmel) 

We can follow threads of a shooter’s history and discover the injustices they experienced. It’s more difficult to locate the roots of entitlement; maybe we look too closely.  

If a 50 year old building suddenly collapses, the cause is not attributed to the people who last walked its floors or climbed its steps. The problem is the integrity of the building’s structure was flawed and over time gave way. People do not crumble because of recent events either, although recent events might be the camel’s straw. 

All of us have some flaws in the structure of our personality and perceptions. Being flawed is the human condition. It is possible that a certain set or combination of flaws accompanied by environmental factors, cultural influences, intelligence, emotional maturity, and the ability to empathize have to be considered as a whole to understand how anyone could enter a classroom and begin shooting. Entitlement and narcissism may be two of those flaws. 

Entitlement is believing you are owed something, or that you are privileged in some way. Narcissism is extreme self-centeredness or a fascination with one’s self. 

It’s easy to imagine that a combination of these two traits, plus antisocial tendencies, is a character structure at risk for aggression. Add to that structure recent stress, rage over injustice, a desire for revenge, mental instability, a need to reestablish a sense of masculinity, and access to firearms; the risk for violent behavior is high. 

None of this excuses the actions of the perpetrators or lessens their responsibility for them. However, in the most recent shootings, the guilty will not face society’s consequences for their crime. Part of their plan seemed to be taking their own life after experiencing the power of their unconscionable act.

_______________________

Signs of an antisocial personality diagnosis are lying, disregard for others rights, the use of intimidation, aggressive behavior, lack of empathy, and manipulating others with wittiness or charm. 

Kalish, Rachel, & Kimmel. Michael, Health Sociology Review. 2010, 19(4): 451-464 

Ferguson, Christopher J.; Coulson, Mark; Barnett, Jane. Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations, 2011, Vol. 11, Issue 2. doi: 10.1080/15332586.2011.581523

Mulvey EP. Assessing the evidence of a link between mental illness and violence. Hosp Community Psychiatry. 1994;45(7):663-668

Violence Policy Center. American Roulete: Murder-Suicide in the United States. 2000. pdf. 


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Jacqueline Marshall

Jacqueline Marshall is a writer for Help For Depression, and freelances primarily in the areas of psychology and personal development. She has a MA in Counseling Psychology and is a licensed therapist living near Chicago.

Jacqueline has experience helping those diagnosed with severe, persistent mental illness, and in providing general therapy services for individuals, couples, and families. Prior to counseling, she worked in graphic design and music education.

When not writing or counseling, Jacqueline enjoys reading literature and math-less books about quantum physics. She is a published poet, and has studied animal communication and energy healing.  

 

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