The world I lived in as a youth is not the world I am living in today. More than ever, the world of today is one that frightens me as freedoms are lost and violence escalates. In the year that the now infamous Columbine shooting took place I was a student in high school. Although there were a few copycat teenagers calling in fake bomb threats to get out of an Algebra exam, or hoping to “be a badass”, there was nothing like the level of despair seen today. What may be the only common thread of the horrific shootings of the 90’s and nowadays is the multitude of people ready to point at the weapons themselves or rather the ease of access to them, the mental state of the perpetrator, and along with that the medications that the individual(s) were on at the time of the shooting. Being a person who fits into many of these categories I find it frightening that those who perhaps don’t understand mental illness and the medications that go along with it have turned these events into a witch-hunt of sorts through a belief that all who are mentally ill or on psychiatric medication are in some way to be lumped into a generalized category of dangerous individuals. As a person who is currently being treated for mental illness and who is on the same medication that many of these individuals were on ( In fact, I even listen to the same type of music as the boys who were involved in the columbine massacre and consider myself an avid gamer), but who lives a decidedly nonviolent life, I have to look into just how this myth came about and what we can do to correct this stereotype before innocent people are made to suffer by being generalized as akin to murderers through vague association.
Myth 1 : All of the Shooting Suspects Have a Mental Illness
I suppose we could say that this one is not exactly a myth. In fact, many of these individuals did indeed have a documented mental illness. One could say, however, that perhaps it is only a half truth. Although in a majority of the cases it is brought to light that the individuals either were under the care of a psychiatrist or therapist or that they had issues that were detected by others but never diagnosed, it is never shown with a statistic of how many individuals are living normal productive lives with the very same diagnosis. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, around 26% of the population of the United States alone are living with mental illness, and 23% are considered “severe”. ( Interestingly, the average onset age is listed around 14 years of age.) When comparing these statistics with the number of individuals who have engaged in violent massacre style acts I think there is a clear gap in the amount of people who suffer from mental illness and the number of people who have perpetrated these types of crime.
- Columbine : At the time of the shooting Eric Harris was under the care of a psychiatrist for depression and suicidal thoughts. Dylan Klebold was stated to be suffering from depression.
- Virginia Tech: Prior to the shooting it was known that Sueng-Hui Cho suffered from Anxiety Disorder and had received therapy in his childhood. It is also reported that he was in special education as a child. He was ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment after an incident of stalking 2 female students at VT in 2005. It appears that although it was known by Cho and those close to him that there was a mental illness problem, steps were taken to avoid proper treatment.
- Fort Hood : Personally, I don’t really know what to think on this particular one, but I can’t help that feel that an upcoming deployment for the man who was paralyzed from the waist down played into the violence to some degree. At the time of the shooting, Nidal Malik Hasan was serving as a Psychiatrist in the US Army. He was listed as a Major. ( For those unfamiliar with military rank and hierarchy a listing can be found here that breaks down just where in his military career he was as a Major.) Although there is no diagnosis listed for this individual his colleagues and others noted that he was “disturbed, paranoid, etc” and it is possible that his position as someone working in the psychiatric field could have enabled him to avoid diagnosis.
- Aurora: The mental state of James Holmes is still largely up for debate as the defense in the case claims that he was in fact a psychiatric patient, but the prosecution however states that this is not the case. Holmes himself, in a discussion prior to the shooting, described his state as Dysphoric Mania. In his actions following the incident, when shown in court and elsewhere, it seemed clear that he was in a state of confusion. However, that is not to say that this was his state prior to or during the shooting.
- Sikh Temple : Possibly the only one on the list to not have been under known psychological care either prior to or at the time of the shooting, Wade Micheal Page was a former Army member who received a general discharge and was also reported to be a white supremacist. Many speculate that rather than being a mass shooting incident, this particular tragedy should fall more into the category of a hate crime. ( Both scenarios, however, are equally as depraved and heartbreaking.)
- Sandy Hook: Both prior to and at the time of the shooting Adam Lanza was reported to have a “personality disorder” which was later clarified to be Asperger’s Syndrome. This diagnosis is actually not a mental illness at all but a member of the Autism Spectrum which can be considered more of a Neurodevelopmental Disorder. There are no reports out to my knowledge to confirm or deny that this was being treated through therapy or medication. However, judging by his move to homeschool, as a parent of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome I personally feel that his family had been aware of the condition for some time.
Although there are countless incidents of gun violence, murders, and even shootings throughout the history of the United States, I have covered here those that have received the most publicity, the most finger pointing, and the most interest when it comes to controlling and containing the mentally ill to keep these things from happening. When we look at the individuals at the heart of each of these massacres we see that there are similarities that can be drawn from this crowd. All of the individuals were loners, quiet, and at least somewhat intelligent. I suppose one could say they were “nerds”. I believe that each of these individuals had a sense that they were outside of society in one way or another, whether they were personally aware of it or not and at times perhaps not even through any fault of their own.
When we look at the mental status of each of these individuals it is interesting to note that the diagnosis or supposed condition was quite varied, ranging from mental illness to racism and potential brain disorders. I would find it hard for anyone to say that “if you have ( insert disorder here) then you should be watched as you may kill people” Quite the most interesting point to look at is the fact that not a single one of these individuals was listed as being diagnosed as having any of the more stereotypically “dangerous” conditions such as schizophrenia, or psychopath/sociopath tendancies . ( Charles Manson, for example, is listed as a Psychopath which is clinically known as Antisocial Personality Disorder) The disorders listed in each of the “massacre shooting” cases are some of the most commonly diagnosed conditions these days…. depression, anxiety, etc. In the case of Adam Lanza, Asperger’s Syndrome is not a mental illness but more of a deficiency that he was born with. When we look at the statistics of those with mood disorders from the National Institute of Mental Health we see that 9% of the population of the United States is diagnosed as having a mood disorder. As of January 2013 the population of the United States was listed as 315,250,000. This means around 28,372,500 individuals living with a mood disorder alone as of the start of 2013. When we take Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, and James Holmes the three I am focusing on who have a documented mood disorder and who have been part of a massacre type shooting in recent years, we find that the instance of those having a mood disorder -and- committing these acts of mass murder is .00000011 percent. I’m certainly no scientist but I find these numbers a little less than substantial enough to make a generalized statement on.
If it isn’t the illness to blame then just what is it that is making these individuals go off the proverbial deep end? Join me in Part 2 of The Witch-Hunt on Mental Illness as we take a look at the demonization of “mind altering medications” better known as psychiatric medication.. SSRI’s, stimulants, and more.