The Myth of Mental Illness and School Violence

Westborough, MA March 3, 2015 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

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2 thoughts on “The Myth of Mental Illness and School Violence

  1. […] WESTBOROUGH,MA July 1, 2015 As the analysis of officer involved shootings gradually becomes clear it becomes inevitable that people begin to wonder about the cumulative number of victims of these shootings who may be diagnosed with some form of mental illness.  When it comes right down to it the fact that these persons may or may not of been a victim of police officer involved shootings will be evaluated on an individual basis based on the use of force continuum to which all police officers adhere. The underpinnings of violence are often present in some form or another and may be represented by a marginalized demeanor and extremist views ” according to Michael Sefton, Director of Psychological Services at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough, MA.  Police officers respond to violent scenes only to face real threats from people who mean to harm them or themselves whether mentally ill or not.  Training and experience kick in when these violent impulses are directed at police officers who are expected to protect potential victims of violence.  The degree of response intensity follows an expected path that is based on the actions of the perpetrator not the actions of the police.  Read my published blog on the Myth of Mental Illness as it cites the truly low incidence of crime and violence among those diagnosed with mental illness.  (https://msefton.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/the-myth-of-mental-illness-and-school-violence/) […]

    • People need to be careful about placing blame for officer involved shootings of mentally ill persons as a “lack of police training” alone. The continuum of force is fluid and requires instantaneous scene size up taking into account the threat level and action is in accordance with this. There should be an expectation that if police officers learn counseling and psychological techniques for de-escalating violent mentally ill persons that there will be programs including hospitals into which these people may be admitted. So far this infrastructure is sorely lacking and underfunded.

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