Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Hidden Psychological Roots of Gun Violence and Mental Health

Disturbing themes in our culture set the stage for gun violence.

Much of the discussion about gun violence, mental illness and public policy is like looking at the branches of the tree and its trunk. But we don't consider the roots, which fuel how the tree grows. Those roots lie within some of our cultural values and aspirations that we absorb as we grow through our families, schools, and into adult relationships and careers. They are murky, hard to see. But here I suggest some worthy of facing and dealing with.

First, it's quite likely that not much will happen following the Newtown elementary school killings, in terms of curbing gun violence. As Dana Milbank recently wrote in The Washington Post, the tendency has been to "slow-walk" discussion about change. And then it never occurs. But if a sea change of attitude and action does result, it would require a critical mass of Democrats and Republicans to summon the courage to confront the political power of the NRA, and enact reasonable gun laws, one's that would be enforced. Such laws would respect the rights of sportsmen, target-shooters, and hunters, as well as those who want firearms to protect their homes. But they would also limit the availability of assault-type weapons that serve none of those purposes. Protecting the public from the danger of being killed by people wielding assault weapons with multiple rounds of ammunition is no less a "right" than that of possessing a gun.

At the same time, legislators would create additional resources for mentally disturbed people. We need to help families, schools, and the general public recognize potential signs of increasing disturbance, whether mild or severe. But keep in mind that most mentally disturbed people never become violent. In fact, most killings aren't committed by the severely mentally disturbed. In a recent New York Times article, psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman points out that only about 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness. Moreover, he cites studies showing that most killers tend to be young men who are not psychotic, but "... paranoid loners who hold a grudge and are full of rage."

Moreover, none of us in the mental health professions can predict who might become violent at some future point. Yes, there are certain combinations of emotions, such as intense anger, which, when fueled by alcohol or drugs, may result in violence. But many people fit that profile and never commit a violent act, let alone murder anyone.

In a sense, the easy part is creating reasonable gun control laws and more resources for helping those who are developing psychiatric problems. Those are good objectives, in themselves, and should be a part of life in a civilized society. But like the tree whose branches and trunk are easily visible, the rise of violence and killing in general has deeper, complex roots. And they're harder to see, understand, and deal with. They consist of some negative, destructive themes within our cultural attitudes about what we strive for in life. They're part of our shared values and norms of behavior towards others, which can be difficult to see.

One the one hand, Americans quickly demonstrate a sense of collaboration, community and giving to others who suffer or are truly in need -- such as in the public response to the damage of Hurricane Sandy, or these recent shootings. But there's a simultaneous cultural theme that's increasingly visible, in contrast. Its threads include:

  • Looking for self-worth and pleasure primarily through material consumption.
  • Viewing people as objects or commodities to extract things from for one's personal gain.
  • Disregarding the impact on others or the larger social good when one's self-interest is primary -- especially through pursuing money, power, position; or by equating "success" in life with those pursuits.
  • Absence of empathy and a general disconnect from others' emotional needs and realities.
  • Disconnection from one's own inner life, and from our interdependency throughout this world.

These threads go hand-in-hand with diminished respect and dignity towards others, especially those who are "different" -- intellectually, socially or emotionally. The latter is visible in the bullying of schoolchildren, in adult relationships, and in the workplace.

So, when you look at, for example, the video games that portray violent killings and blood splattering all around; the action movies and TV shows that glorify killing and torture, enhanced by special effects; reality shows that glamorize outrageous display of anger and destructive conflict; newspaper and TV coverage of the latest sports star or entertainer who beats his spouse, is slapped with a restraining order... then marries her; and the all-too-frequent child rearing behavior that includes humiliation, indifference, disrespect, destructive anger, or worse -- view all of them as manifestations of the deeper theme, the roots.

In turn, those roots nourish the conditions which make it more likely that some will develop deep anger, a sense of isolation, a sense of nothing to look forward to in life, or a feeling of hollowness or chronic stress, despite the possessions and positions they're learned to go after. Some trees grow into beautiful, majestic form. Others, because of the roots and the conditions in which they develop, become deformed, stunted or twisted. Our cultural roots that contain negative, unhealthy themes contribute to malaise, depression, escapism through alcohol, drugs, relationships that descend into "depressing comfortableness;" and, in some cases, murderous rage that's enacted in real time, not in fantasy land.

Of course, what I've raised is complex, and I'm just touching on some themes that are worth exploring. It's hard, even, to raise them for serious discussion because they involve attitudes, values and behavior commonly accepted and embraced in our culture. But I hope we can begin to do so. Your thoughts?

Center for Progressive Development

Blog: Progressive Impact

© 2013 Douglas LaBier

More from Psychology Today

More from Douglas LaBier Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today