The Myth of Mental Illness and School Violence

WESTBOROUGH, MA January 13, 2018 The true incidence of violence among people diagnosed with a nervous and mental disorder is quite low. It is a common misconception that whenever something hideous occurs it must be “mental illness” that is the driving force behind its fury. Occasionally this is true but much less than one may anticipate.  I have written on those with both mental illness and co-occurring substance abuse in prior posts (Sefton, 2017a, Sefton, 2017b).  In most cases mental illness alonebigstock-Mental-illness-in-word-collage-072313 is neither the reality nor the underlying cause of terminal rage. In light of the information being uncovered about the Newtown, CT mass murderer, the specter of mental illness insures a convenient scapegoat. Updated information from Newtown recently confirmed that Adam Lanza had studied the media stories of prior mass killings as he planned for his despicable finale. In retrospect, I wonder what “red flags” have been uncovered that offer insight into his substantive motivation. People will speculate about random causes of Lanza’s behavior unless it can be studied scientifically.  Was Adam Lanza mentally ill?
There are some instances when mental illness may be associated with serial homicide such as the Son of Sam killer who plied his murderous delusions in NYC during the 1970’s using a Charter Arm’s Bulldog .44 caliber revolver. David Berkowitz used that weapon to kill 6 and wound 7 during his spree. He claimed to have been commanded to kill random couples he saw in cars by a dog he believed possessed by the demon. After spending time in a mental institution following his conviction he was transferred to the state prison at Sing Sing and finally Attica to serve 6 life sentences. When he was on trial Berkowitz plead not guilty by reason of insanity – the delusions he had about communicating with demons. In the end, it was determined that Berkowitz was not mentally ill. The Columbine, CO high school killers, Klebold and Harris were methodical in their planning of the attacks on the school and its students. They built explosive devices and practiced their attack in the weeks before the assault on the school. By outward appearances these two were from middle class families with involved parents.
Kliebold and Harris were identified as Columbine. CO H.S. mass shooters
Many believe Klebold and Harris were the victim of bullies. Psychological experts believe mentally ill persons lack the higher order planning to execute the complex steps necessary for these types of crimes. Neither Dan Klebold nor Eric Harris was mentally ill. The Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho murdered 31 students and faculty in 2007 after a period of decompensating rage. He wrote a profanity laden manifesto blaming everyone for their maltreatment of him that sounded paranoid and vindictive yet was able to send the videotaped diatribe to a news agency. Yet Cho was able to plan his killing spree methodically even to the extent that he chained the entry doors into the building in which he made his final assault. This delayed entry by the active shooter team by minutes. Cho had been held in a psychiatric hospital 2 years prior to his rampage after becoming marginalized. He should not have had access to firearms under current statutes.  Was he mentally ill?
      The Psychological Autopsy is a clinical assessment of the time line and antemortem emotional comportment of the perpetrator of sometimes despicible terminal events.  These types of case studies explore changes in cognitive and behavioral functioning immediately before a terminal event of homicide. An extensive review of a case from 2010 that was published in 2011 generated over 50 recommendations about DV and factors to consider when victims are at greatest risk.  The cost of these interviews and substantive case review is the primary reason they are not regularly conducted.  It is also less compelling when the perpetrator has killed himself and survivors want to turn the page.
Recently, shooters have survived mass killings in Aurora, CO and Tuscon, AZ. They are the face of mass murder today and as they moved through the criminal justice system – both ultimately found guilty.  It is hoped that important information may be gleaned from studying their motives, personal history, and triggers to their rage.

Ronald Allanach et al., Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic
Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov. 28, 2011),
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First posted by Michael Sefton, Ph.D. at Friday, March 13, 2013