The Myth of Mental Illness and School Violence

This blog was initially published in March 2013 as a retrospective on the recent spate of “active shooter” tragedies across America.  There have been several high-profile shootings in the past 3 years that have involved perpetrators whose mental health is in question.  This is often not the case in school violence whereas the perpetrator of the action was deceased at the conclusion of the incident.  In these cases an effort must be made to uncover substantive causal factors in the perpetrator’s terminal actions.
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. In most cases this 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 final melt down. 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 with uncertainty unless it can be studied scientifically.
There are some instances when mental illness has 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. 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. Cho had been held in a psychiatric hospital 2 years prior to his rampage after becoming marginalized. Cho was able to organize his crime preparation and sequence the needed steps to meet his murderous goal. Was he mentally ill?
The Psychological Autopsy is a clinical assessment of the time line and antemortem behavior and emotional comportment of the perpetrator of compelling and despicable 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 (Allanach, R., 2011). 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, at least 2 shooters have survived mass killings or have been captured after their alleged attacks.  In 2012 in Aurora, CO movie theater James Holmes was arrested and charged with multiple counts of murder.  He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.  In 2011, Jared Lee Loughner was arrested at an outdoor political event in Tuscon, AZ after the shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killing 6 others. Loughner plead guilty after being found that he was capable of standing trial.He is serving 140 years in prison.  The Aurora case remains open.
It is hoped that important information may be gleaned from the rigorous study of motives, personal history, and triggers to their rage.

REFERENCES
Ronald Allanach et al., Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov.28,2011), http://pinetreewatchdog.org/files/2011/12/Dexter-DVH-Psychological-Autopsy-Final-Report-112811-111.pdf.
Sefton, M. (2011) The Psychological Autopsy: Provides a host of pre-incident indicators. Blog:  http://www.enddvh.blogspot.com/2011/11/psychological-autopsy.htm, taken May 26, 2014.
Sefton, M (2013) Asperger’s Disorder: Not linked to violence. https://msefton.wordpress.com/category/active-shooter/ Taken March 2, 2015
Michael Sefton, Ph.D.
Read more at: http://www.msefton.wordpress.com

“The underpinnings…

“The underpinnings of violence are often present in some form or another and may be represented by marginalized demeanor and extremist views and often ignored by those in the cross hairs” according to Michael Sefton, Director of Psychological Services at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough, MA.

This quote represents a recurring belief about the evolving coping skill of an active shooter until the very end according to M Sefton.  The terminal event is often preceeded by growing fury and red flag signs of anger.  It suggests that greater awareness by outside observers of sudden changes in mental status should be recognized along with the utilization of stopping and containment protocols and coordination of care in or out of the state correctional system.

Active shooter evoke images of horror – fear

Image
DC shooting scene taken off news channel

Right now in Washington DC, Metropolitan police officers are searching for the motive to today’s shooting onslaught that took place at a heavily guarded Naval facility in the southeast section of the nation’s capitol.  Arguably, Washington DC has the highest per capita number of law enforcement officers in the country.  Between federal law enforcement agencies like ATF, FBI, National Park police, Capitol police, and the full complement of highly trained Metropolitan officers, the city is well guarded.  Or so we thought.

The active shooter call is one that no officer ever wants to get.  It requires fast action, teamwork, and herculean bravery like no other call.   The “active shooter” refers to just that – ongoing, systematic slaughter of innocent civilians with the specific purpose of violence and murder.  These events start and end quickly averaging only 7-10 minutes before the shooter is dead.  Usually killed by his own hand but not before the execution or injury to scores of men, women and children.   Most police officers have taken the active shooter training programs that evolved after the Columbine HS shooting.  Since then, officers are trained to “move to contact” – go find the bad guy – do not to wait for special weapons teams as the former response zeitgeist once required.  Many behavioral scientists believe shooters give off clues before they act on their violent plans.

The active shooter has become an all too frequent happenstance that we cannot ignore.  In a blog published in April, 2013 information became apparent about Jared Loughner’s change in mental status and growing detachment from others (Sefton, 4-24-13).  People suspected that Loughner was becoming a danger to himself and others.  Unfortunately, there was no in-depth assessment of his mental status before he went on the bloody rampage.  Loughner plead guilty to the Tuscon shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords and killing or wounding 18 others.  He is serving 111 years in prison.

WHAT HAPPENS TO THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The repeated exposure to horrific events  such as the DC Navy base shooting and too many others raise the risk of making toxic our collective conscience toward the images and horror and loss of life.  People feel denuded and afraid when they hear about shooting events such as these but something more needs to be done.  What drives these individuals?  In the coming weeks or months more information about the apparent shooter will become known.  Behavioral experts will make assumptions about his motive and the underpinnings of the violent onslaught.  “The psychological autopsy is a detailed analysis of the pre-incident emotional comportment and behavior of the violent decedent although this is rarely done” according to Michael Sefton.   More of these studies should be undertaken to establish high risk conditions that may create stopping and containment points for derailment of action and greater understanding of those with a proclivity toward terminal violence – such as what happened today.

What is certain is the need for each of us to be more aware of our surroundings and to those who might do us harm.  When confronted with evil it is incumbant upon each of us to think and take aggressive action that may save your own life and the lives of others.