By Dr David Laing Dawson
Two serious online Psychiatric journals recently implored us to not “equate mass killing with mental illness.”
While the impulse to avoid further stigmatizing mental illness with the burden of mass murder is admirable, simply labeling these killers as bad, evil, amoral, racist, or, as one of the authors called them, “terrorists”, is not in the least helpful.
The information I have on the mass killings of the past 30 years is limited to that which is eventually revealed in the public media, but it is enough, I think, to make these judgements:
For the older men (40’s, 50’s, 60’s) the pattern is often one of a psychotic depression. Failure, a loss of relationship/job, long standing grievances and obsessions, blaming, nihilism, depression, despair, anger and suicide. They shoot up the doctor’s office, the emergency room, the post office, the place of recent employment, the extended family, the perceived cause of their pain and failure, and then themselves.
For the younger men (late teens, early twenties) the pattern is one of a developing psychotic illness like schizophrenia: social isolation, imposed by personality, disability, or illness, failures, grievances, seeking meaning and explanation in the wrong places, finding one, a simple satisfying explanation for all that is wrong, one that also provides a cause or source.
Plus that moment of slipping from obsession to delusion, a delusion in which the young man developing a psychotic illness now believes he is a major player, that he must act to ….., that he has been chosen for……., that he must die in a grand gesture for…..and then be remembered for….
I have been there many times in the past 50 years when young men reached that point. Fortunately not one had access to handguns or AR 15’s. And usually, almost always, the organizing principles, the delusions they arrive at, are only harmful to themselves and their families.
One decided he was Hitler’s illegitimate son. One stabbed his father who was “possessed by evil”. One decided to don the robes of Christ and preach to the masses as he wandered the continent. One did decide to borrow his uncle’s hunting rifle to kill the kids at school who had bullied him, but his right arm froze. Another unfurled a flag on the roof of the police station. Another jumped off a school roof, commanded to do this, to save the world. Another sought the home address of his nurse counselor so that he might kill her and rid the world of evil. Another stopped talking, went mute, lest his words cause more floods and famine. More than a few have come to the conclusion that the police and/or the government are controlling them, have implanted chips in them, listen to them, watch them day and night. Some have wondered if I am part of this evil cabal. And many, in the last 15 years, have fallen down the rabbit hole of internet conspiracy theories.
But none had easy access to weapons of mass killing.
So yes, in both those age groups, at the expected age of onset, mental illness is often a factor, along with easily attainable weapons. And of these two factors the latter is far more amenable to prevention.