What do we make of mass murders in which the gunman – and it’s almost always a man – kills several people and then dies immediately afterwards by his own hand, or commits “suicide by cop.” In the span of about a week, we in the US have experienced three such events:
The obvious interpretation is that these crazed shooters are suicidal and want to take others with them. And while that conclusion isn’t wrong, it tells us nothing about the psychology of this kind of mass killer.
Here are the facts as reported:
Florida: The killer assassinated five people and then killed himself at his former place of employment. He had been recently fired. Some years ago, he physically assaulted a coworker at that same business, and apparently had a recent dispute with at least one of the shooting victims. He was not criminally charged with that previous assault, and he was allowed to keep his job.
I’m surprised that it needs to be said, but apparently is does: Whenever an employee assaults someone at work or threatens violence, that person must be terminated immediately. The termination should be handled as respectfully as possible, and in a low-key manner, allowing the person some means of saving face. For example, allow the employee to resign rather than be fired, if he or she is willing. Failing in that, the termination should be framed along these lines:
“You’ve been a valued employee up to now, but you know as well as I that fighting on the job is unacceptable. This isn’t working out for either of us, so I have no choice but to let you go. We’ll give you a couple of weeks’ severance pay [or whatever], and if anyone calls for a reference, we’ll just confirm that you worked here and give them your starting and ending dates. We won’t comment further. I’m very sorry about this, and I wish you the best.”
Hands down, that beats dead employees and a rash of lawsuits from traumatized survivors and murdered employees’ families.
Mississippi: Eight people, including a deputy sheriff, died in a domestic dispute that veered out of control. The killer’s wife apparently had left him and took the children. He went to her parents’ house, where she and the kids were staying, and an argument ensued. Someone called the sheriff. When the shooting stopped, four were dead at that location. The gunman then killed four more people at two other residences. He apparently intended to die in a shoot-out with police but ran out of bullets and was arrested.
Indiana: Details on this shooting are just being reported. The intruder shot two women, who at this writing are hospitalized but not dead. The shooter killed himself at the scene. This apparently was a domestic drama that spilled over into the workplace.
So what’s going on inside the heads of these miscreants? Let’s go ahead and stipulate that these hostile individuals probably had pre-existing mental health issues that contributed to their behavior. However, they lived well into adulthood without having previously killed anyone else or themselves. Chronic psychological disorders may have made these people social misfits, but it takes more than that to provoke a violent death spiral.
In these three cases we have sensational examples of catathymic crises. Catathymia, a term not much used anymore, refers to a state of mind in which the individual is so overwrought with disturbing emotions that rational thought and the capacity for self-restraint are overwhelmed. A person so afflicted would enter a dissociative state, probably to the breaking point of psychosis. In short, temporary insanity.
Three types of catathymic crisis have been identified:
Delusional catathymic crisis: As a result of extreme, pent-up emotional distress, the individual comes to believe that an explosive act of violence is the only way to resolve an increasingly unbearable situation.
Chronic catathymic crisis: Chronic differs from delusional only in that the onset of the crisis follows an identifiable pattern (as opposed to a convoluted mish-mash of emotional reasoning, non-sequiturs, and violent fantasies). First, there is an incubation period during which the person broods about his or her grievances. This is followed by a period of fixation, during which the afflicted individual identifies and broods about whomever he or she blames for the present situation. The final phase is planning and carrying out the violent retribution.
Acute catathymic crisis: When a person is caught up in a catathymic crisis, but hasn’t acted violently yet, he or she is a walking powder keg. A chance encounter between that person and a stranger or acquaintance can trigger the violent outburst prematurely. Imagine what might have happened, for example, if you had experienced a road rage encounter with the Florida, Mississippi, or Indiana shooters before they carried out their mass murders.
With certain unstable men, we see again and again that a situation of public humiliation or relational rejection can trigger a catathymic crisis. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the risks and to handle confrontational situations with tact and diplomacy. It costs nothing to allow a terminated employee or spurned lover to save face and retain his or her human dignity in the face of adverse circumstances. In fact, it can save lives.