Mental Health and School Shootings

If the violence problem is due to mental health issues, the future is bleak.

Posted Feb 15, 2018

Clker-Free-Vector-Images / Pixabay
Source: Clker-Free-Vector-Images / Pixabay

Is anyone else just emotionally exhausted from dealing with mass shootings in our nation? What happened yesterday, when a young man killed 17 at a high school in Parkland, Florida, is starting to seem like a typical news story. To my mind, it is unbelievable how normative this kind of incident is becoming.

In a tweet speaking to this horror, Donald Trump said this:

“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

So the president seems to be primarily placing blame on the fact that the killer was “mentally disturbed.” The president does not mention gun control or much else in his preliminary statement on this incident.

As a professional behavioral scientist, I am disappointed by such a simple characterization of such a significant issue. As I have written about in detail before, nearly all human behaviors are the result of multiple factors (see: Multi-Factorial Causation and the Orlando Shootings). To say that mental instability is the only factor responsible for what happened yesterday in Parkland, Florida is an excessive oversimplification. As is the case with all of the mass shootings we are seeing in our nation these days, there are multiple causes at work.

Let’s Assume for a Second that the Mental Health Issue Is the Primary Issue

For a second, for argument’s sake, let’s think about the implications of the it is a mental health issue perspective on mass shootings. From where I stand, if this were the case, this would be enormously unsettling for various reasons.

Largely, this would be concerning because mental health problems have pretty much been skyrocketing in our nation across the past few decades (see Twenge, 2015). In fact, in a powerful Psychology Today post from 2015, my colleague Jean Twenge provides a mountain of data speaking to the facts that (a) a broad array of psychological disorders, including depression and anxiety, have increased in frequency since the 1980s and (b) this observed pattern is not exclusively the result of over-diagnosis. In short, our nation is getting less and less mentally healthy with time. And yes, this is a problem.

While this pattern is problematic for many reasons, I’d like you to join me in thinking about the implications regarding the future of senseless violence in this country. A simple assessment of this situation is pretty grave. If mass shootings are the result of mental health problems, and if mental health problems are on the rise, then we can only expect the trend in such events as mass shootings to increase. Think about that.

What Can We Do About It?

To my mind, this constellation of facts is truly grim and gives me great concern regarding our future. Of course, action is ultimately what is needed here. And in a democracy like ours, action often takes the form of embracing the First Amendment and by engaging in the electoral process. We can do things such as writing letters to elected officials, writing letters to the local newspaper, meeting with elected officials and holding them to task, electing officials into office who have a record of taking action on the issues at hand to make a positive difference, and even running for office.

If the problem is all about increases in psychological disorders in our nation, then we need to support programs in the fields of psychology and mental health. And we need to particularly support programs that have been demonstrated, through rigorous empirical research, to actually work. And we need to support our colleges and universities with teams of researchers who are studying this topic with the most cutting-edge scientific methods.

However, given the fact that each mass shooting is likely caused by a broad array of factors, then if we are really serious about increasing the safety of our nation, we need to address each of these factors.

A great deal of research has shown a connection between the unique gun laws in the U.S. and the excessively high rate of mass shootings in our nation. The connection is beyond what would be expected by chance. And, in statistical terminology, the effect size is enormous. So while it seems likely that the guy in Florida was mentally unstable, it is also clear that he legally purchased extremely dangerous firearms that ended up being used in the incident. There are at least two foundational causes as to why this event occurred. If we really care about our future, then we need to address both of these issues.

Bottom Line

When I hear about another case of needless violence and carnage, I get upset. I have always liked to believe that the U.S. is a great nation. It’s hard to see things that way when there’s a mass shooting nearly every day in this country and it seems that our hands are tied as to how to deal with it.

One cause of this problem that is often cited pertains to mental health problems. Sure, a lot of these killers have histories of being mentally unstable. But mental health problems are on the rise in this country. So if we really think that the issue of mental health is the primary issue at hand here, then we are in big trouble moving forward. Just saying “be vigilant” is not going to solve the problem.

Further, a landslide of evidence has shown that the unique gun culture and gun laws in the U.S. are very strongly connected with the high level of mass shootings in our nation. It seems, then, given all of these factors taken together, that substantially modified gun laws at this time in our history, while mental health issues are on the increase, would be a good idea. For our shared future.

References

Twenge, J. M. (2015). Time period and birth cohort differences in depressive symptoms in the U.S., 1982-2013. Social Indicators Research, 121, 437-454.