Dear Mr. President--
As a forensic psychologist and an American, I empathize with your profound frustration, pain, sadness, disgust and anger regarding the most recent mass shooting on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon this week. Tragically, like so many others, it resulted in the ultraviolent deaths of nine people and serious wounding of another nine by a 26-year-old male student armed to the teeth and prepared to take on all comers.
Clearly, Mr. President, you personally recognize what has become obvious: that these evil deeds are in fact occurring more and more frequently here in America, and that we must do something right now to stop or at least slow down this national crisis. As someone who has been writing and speaking about this alarming and atrocious trend for more than two decades now, including here for Psychology Today in my blog "Evil Deeds," I, like you, am weary of constantly repeating myself each time another mass shooting predictably happens. (See my prior posts.)
Many of my colleagues, as you know, including prominent psychologists such as Steven Pinker at Harvard University, would argue reassuringly, but quite wrongly I believe, that violence is statistically decreasing in this country, and that, therefore, we are today living in a far less violent society than did our ancestors. Some observers suggest that such events are inevitable in a free society, and must be stoically accepted because they cannot be stopped. But it seems you rightly recognize all too well the evil quality, rapidly escalating regularity, and ominous significance of these violent events and their dire implications for the future of our society. We cannot continue to passively sit by and accept the unacceptable.
Your emphasis on stricter gun control as representing at least a partial and relatively expedient solution to the problem is understandable, since, as you correctly state, there are far fewer mass shootings in countries which have more restrictive laws regarding gun ownership--though such incidents are on the rise even in those countries. (See my prior post.) However, while I agree that enacting and enforcing new legislation regulating and restricting who can legally purchase a gun here in the U.S. has merit, and may help stem the tsunami of murderous violence en masse we are witnessing with such frightening frequency these days, I do not consider it to be the primary problem or cause of this deadly epidemic.
There are experts from diverse fields of study that consider "mental health" to be the main issue. This seems more to the point, though it does not necessarily negate the need for more restrictive gun laws in my view. They insist that if we can just properly identify and diagnose so-called "mentally ill" individuals as the primary perpetrators of these evil deeds, we could not only prevent them from legally obtaining guns, but aggressively treat them so as to prevent such murderous outbursts, or, in some cases, involuntarily institutionalize them, thus taking them off the streets permanently. But, among many other ethical, legal and practical problems with this draconian approach, there is certainly no single psychiatric disorder to which we can attribute every violent event like this. Some mass shooters have been found to be schizophrenic; others manic, depressed, severely narcissistic or psychopathic. The vast majority of such patients never commit mass murder, though they may be more at risk for doing so. Nor has mainstream psychiatric treatment as provided today, primarily in the form of psychotropic medication, proven effective in making mass killings less likely to happen, since, as we know, many of the perpetrators of these shootings have sought and received such treatment prior to their crimes, which may have also been the case with this latest shooter. Indeed, it could be argued that such pharmacological therapies can, in some cases, actually increase the likelihood of violence against self or others.
Moreover, though we as mental health professionals are gradually getting better at it, violent behavior is notoriously difficult to predict. It is true that if we were to further reduce or eliminate the ability of a certain segment of our population who suffer from particular psychiatric syndromes such as psychosis, depression, substance abuse or severe personality disorders and/or a known criminal history of violent behavior (past behavior being the best predictor of future behavior) to access guns, it would, of course, make it more difficult for them to wreak such horrific damage on so many others. But where there is a will, there is a way. And anyone hell-bent on killing as many people as possible and then perhaps themselves (as the Roseburg shooter reportedly did) can either steal, borrow or buy guns illegally, or use some other method such as explosives, fire, carbon monoxide, motor vehicles, knives, hatchets, bows and arrows or what have you as lethal weapons. And they do, both here in the U.S. as well as in other nations with much tighter gun control.
As a forensic psychologist, I would agree that virtually every mass shooter suffers from some diagnosable mental disorder leading up to and at the time of the commission of their crimes, though not any single psychiatric diagnosis in particular. The effort to explain such destructive behavior by attributing it to "mental illness" such as schizophrenia or sociopathy only goes so far. We must delve deeper into the vexing problem, its causes, and its potential solution. You, like many Americans, seem to intuitively sense that this awful phenomenon is not just about easy access to guns; nor is it merely about blaming some specific type of mental illness. For it goes far beyond such simplistic explanations. Our burgeoning mass murder epidemic begs the much bigger questions: What is so-called "mental illness" or "madness"? What really causes it? What psychological, social and biological factors contribute to it? Who is susceptible to it? We must as a society reconsider what truly constitutes "mental illness" and "mental health," what truly causes someone to go "mad," "berserk," or to "run amok."
Though contemporary psychiatry and psychology believe they already know the answers to these perennial questions, placing the blame primarily on neurobiological aberrations in our brains, that is, in my opinion, but a partial and exceedingly poor understanding of this phenomenon. We need to carefully reexamine the nature and causes of mental disorders from both a psychological and social, as well as possibly a spiritual perspective. Indeed, this epidemic of mass shootings can be seen as symptomatic of some much broader societal ill, something wrong within the very fabric of American culture. It may be telling us something vitally important about ourselves, our values, and the way we currently conceptualize and treat mental illness. Therefore, we must first accurately diagnose this systemic societal sickness before we can effectively cure it.
Particularly suspect, in my estimation, is the troubling phenomenon of anger, our attitude toward anger and how we deal with it, and the pervasive problem of chronically repressed pathological rage. Pathological anger or rage, I submit, is the primary problem confronting us, anger being perhaps the most challenging and potentially dangerous of human emotions to manage for most of us. Most mental disorders, and especially those that many mass shooters tend to suffer from, are symptomatic of this repressed anger rather than vice versa. This repressed rage, for me, is really what is fueling the madness manifest in these serial mass shootings. These particular violent offenders, almost invariably, suffer from what I would describe as an underlying anger disorder. (See my prior posts.)
Until we Americans, especially those of us in the mental health field, recognize the crucial role played by anger or rage in the formation of mental disorders of myriad kinds, but most overtly and dramatically in these destructive, hateful acts of mass aggression, we will not be in a position to prevent such mass murders from happening. For what we are seeing in each and every one of these violent events is nothing less than an explosion of a long-festering rage directed against the world, against society, against authority, and sometimes against God, part of which comes from chronic frustration in fulfilling one's basic needs in life along with painful feelings of impotence, isolation and insignificance. These bedeviled individuals are driven by what I have referred to as a "wicked rage for recognition" (see my prior posts), and frequently by an unrelenting need for revenge against those whom they perceive to have disrespected, frustrated, rejected or in some way prevented them from being successful. According to news reports on the Oregon shooter, for instance, he supposedly stated that he had been "wanting to do this for years." He also allegedly wrote about how he observed from other mass shootings that "spilling a little blood" is all it takes to elevate oneself from total obscurity into the "limelight." Having failed to find some productive way to participate satisfactorily in society and distinguish themselves, these deeply discouraged, frustrated and furious individuals settle instead for facile infamy.
Based on these clinical observations, my sincere recommendation, Mr. President, as a forensic psychologist with decades of experience dealing with such enraged and dangerous individuals, is to immediately appoint an expert panel to specifically address and scientifically study the underappreciated part that unresolved, chronically repressed anger or rage plays in the motivation and psychology of mass shooters, and how best to diagnose and effectively treat these underlying anger disorders, preferably before the rage and embitterment become morbid and deadly. Our generally suppressive treatment of anger or rage in America today is fatally flawed, and this includes not only how we use (or misuse) psychiatric medications but applies to most of our current approaches to counseling and psychotherapy as well. Repressing or suppressing our anger or rage rather than confronting and addressing it is, as we can see, a recipe for disaster.
As some will rightfully call for, we need to better fund our mental health infrastructure, no doubt. But this infusion of funding will only be of minimal help if providers of mental health services merely continue to do more of the same thing they have been doing. What we desperately need is a new and different orientation to addressing people's feelings of existential frustration, anger or rage, and sense of insignificance, powerlessness, alienation, meaninglessness and purposelessness. One which acknowledges, validates, and facilitates a constructive redirection of their anger before it is destructively acted out in these devastating detonations of violence. The carnage must be stopped or at least contained if we are to continue to call ourselves a civilized and humane society.
Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist
Los Angeles, CA