Did you know that severe/untreated mental illness accounts for between 5% and 15% of community violence, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center?
Did you know that prisons across the nation are filled with those who have severe mental illnesses?
It’s a fact that severe and untreated mental illness can result in criminal behavior. We cannot, for fear of stigma, minimize this. We do NEED to ensure we provide clear and correct facts.
In this article, I discuss some reasons for why we miss the psychology of mass murderers. We tend to minimize their issue to “bad behavior” or “callousness” without considering what really went wrong.
The traumatic incident in a Parkland Florida High School will mark history forever. Many of the youths who were victims of the tragic shooting have spoken out in hopes of changing the rules of our schools and our society at large. I’m truly hoping that these kids will help us move forward with a different frame of mind.
We need our schools to be better protected. We need our society to have true facts on mental illness. We need our youths to be evaluated and helped when they show a series of problematic behaviors. We need better gun laws. We need a lot.
I have listed a few reasons that keep us, as a society, in the dark about mass murderers:
- Mass ignorance of mental illness: it’s sad to say but mental health continues to be dominated by stigma and preconceived notions. It isn’t something that we have “gotten over” in terms of what it means to have a “mental health condition.” Society still believes that mental illness is “taboo” and that something is wrong (even if the person verbalizes “nothing is wrong”) with someone who pursues counseling or mental health treatment. I find this most prevalent among those considered Babyboomers.
- Fear of stigma = no talk of the obvious: In order to reduce mental health stigma and preconceived notions about mental illness, most people engage in either minimizing a very obvious issue or placing blame on something else. In the various political debates about what happened in Parkland Florida after Nicholas opened fire in his school and killing 17 students, the main issue was either gun control or minimization of mental illness as being a culprit. We have to stop this! This isn’t a battle of “who wins” the debate. This is an issue with a combination of factors that we must pay attention to. Although those with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators according to some research, other research suggests that those who are suffering from severe and untreated mental illnesses (schizophrenia, psychotic disorders, delusions, or severe bipolar disorder) are likely to engage in threatening behaviors within the community. There is a reason why there were once mental health hospitals that housed many who struggled with severe and untreated mental health conditions. When a mental illness is untreated, behavior can become very unpredictable and threatening. If the person isn’t a threat to him/herself, they may be a threat to others. We can’t ignore this.
- Lack of attention to risk factors: Risk factors are things that make us more susceptible to challenges within our homes, schools, and communities. Risk factors are things such as parents who abuse substances, untreated severe mental illness, substance abuse, growing up in a violent or impoverished neighborhood, child abuse and neglect, exposure to trauma, having attempted suicide in one’s past, dropping out of school, lower socioeconomic status, single-parent household, early experiences with psychotic symptoms, teen sex, and pregnancy, etc. Protective factors are the things that prevent the above from happening, or at least, mitigates it. When risk factors outweigh protective factors, we’ve got a problem that needs evaluating.
- School personnel: School personnel are sometimes just as varied as the kids in the school. They may differ in their reactions to troubled students, may differ in their level of expertise or knowledge of troubled youths, and may differ in their view of mental illness and access to guns. As a result, it is important that we understand that ALL school personnel need to be trained to understand the issues that are more prevalent among our youths than some school employees/personnel may thing. We need to ensure that all school staff are ready, aware, and knowledgeable. I haven’t seen this across the board. We are still lacking in many areas.
- Parental mental health: Parental mental health, especially if untreated, is a risk factor. Sadly, we don’t know what triggered Nicholas to attempt murder on thousands of kids within his school. But what we do know, as a result of reports in the media, is that his mother died and that he had a troubled past. Was his troubled past the result of poor parental attachment or connection? Was he love-starved and lonely? Was he sick and untreated? What happened here? Does his upbringing and his relationship with his parent(s) have any influence? This is important for us to examine with all kids.
- Parental lack of knowledge: It’s sad for me to say this but I have met so many parents who simply do not believe their son or daughter would ever harm someone in society. Who would want to believe this? Most parents would not. But there are some youths who are clearly antisocial and socipathic. For most families, it may be difficult to recognize sociopathic traits in those closest to us. When parents lack knowledge about the extent and level of their son or daughter’s mental or behavioral health problems, society is in for a rude awakening.
- Hiding/ignoring behaviors or signs: It is so very easy to minimize the behavioral, emotional, and psychological needs of our youths, especially when they are smart and charming kids. When a youth is struggling with all the many risk factors in his or her life, it is important that we understand how to address this sooner than later. We have to address this because if we don’t, we will most likely be sorry at some point. We cannot ignore signs of problems no matter how much we may like a youth, want to favor them, or simply don’t believe they would do anything to harm another person. The reality is that we don’t know.
- Lack of crisis protocol: Having a plan on how to cope with a crisis is important. Knowing how to rebound from a traumatic even is even more important. Although schools have a protocol for managing a crisis, I often encourage my individual families to discuss and prepare for a crisis that may occur at home or in school. What’s there to lose?
- Confusion of crime vs mental illness: There is a lot of confusion in today’s society that says that if you commit a crime you are not mentally ill. This is incorrect. Crime and mental illness often go hand and hand among those who are incarcerated and untreated. As stated above, those with mental health conditions are more likely to be victims than perpetrators. But this, in no way, means that those with mental illness may never commit a crime. Research suggests that those with untreated or severe mental illness are incarcerated and untreated for extended periods of time. We have to be careful about how we discuss this issue. We don’t want to minimize the connection between untreated/severe mental illness and criminal activity or incarceration.
So what do you think of these as possible reasons for tragedies across the nation? Do you think our knowledge of mental illness/behavioral problems is limited? Or do you think we need to deal with gun laws?
As always, I look forward to hearing from you.
I wish you well