Category Archives: Mental Illness and Gun Violence

It’s Not Mental Illness Stupid. It’s Guns!

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Each day the newspapers, CNN, Google, these last few days, headline the question of motive for the most recent mass shooting in Texas. Little has been released save the man’s name and a bit of background, presumably because there are multiple “crime scenes” to be investigated first.

But what struck me was this hunger for motive, for reasons and explanations. We need the reassurance of specificity, of explanation, of cause and effect. We need to understand. And we want to understand in a manner that will reassure us that we are not vulnerable; that we will not find ourselves at either end of that rifle.

But it is also a way of deflecting from some uncomfortable answers, some simpler explanations. So I thought I would take it upon myself to spell those out once again.

This man was angry and depressed and he had a loaded gun in his car. Obviously he was angry, and depressed because he would know as we do that taking that action is suicidal.

Why angry and depressed?

Does it matter? Lost a job? Lost a partner? Developing mental illness? Years of grievances? Broke? Friendless? Paranoid?

There are many people driving around or sitting in chairs angry and depressed.

It’s the loaded gun that makes the difference between getting a ticket, having your car impounded and taking a taxi, breaking down and crying at the side of the road, railing at the cops, being reminded of the unfairness of life, and what actually transpired that morning in Texas.

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The Danforth Shooting – Violence and Mental Illness

By Dr David Laing Dawson

In the wake of the Danforth shooting a couple of my colleagues have been quick to point out that the association between mental illness and violence is small, that most people suffering from mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence. They are worried about the stigma of violence attaching itself to mental illness. And of course they are right. Though one of them goes on to use those horrible euphemisms of “mental health issues” and “mental health challenges”.

Language is important as are the questions we ask.

If we expand the problem to “mental health issues” then I am sure I can rightly say that all acts of physical violence by one human against another are the products of “mental health issues”. Otherwise we will have to expand our concepts of normal and healthy to include physical violence.

And the use of such ill defined euphemisms plus our worry about stigma cause us to ask the wrong questions. Did he suffer from “mental health challenges” and “issues”? Of course he did. Is a circle round?

These are the better questions to be asked:

1. Did treatable mental illness play a role in the Danforth shooting?

(I have just read that the man in question “repeatedly cut into his face with a pencil sharpener blade” and talked of hearing voices – both symptoms of a treatable mental illness, a psychosis, probably schizophrenia)

2. If he did have such an illness why was it not being adequately treated?

(Not “supported”, “counselled”, “accommodated”, but treated)

And finally, because question 2 will always lead to imperfect answers, 3. How did he get a gun?

I have to add that while many people suffering from delusions never act on those delusions, especially if they are being treated, a very specific sign that a psychotic and delusional person will act upon a delusion (that is, attack his imagined torturers) is self injury to face or genitals.

Of Course Guns are the Problem.

By Dr David Laing Dawson

No doubt the perpetrators of recent mass shootings in schools, churches and university campuses were troubled young men. They may or may not have each suffered from a treatable psychiatric illness. They did nurse grievances. Their solutions for those grievances were at the least misguided, and at the most delusional. They were also  suicidal, though possibly young enough and deranged enough to not really grasp the finality of death.

In each case the impetus for their actions was partly internal, partly fueled by internet propaganda and hate.

And they were each able to acquire an arsenal of weapons, openly, not secretly – proudly, not furtively.

In another time and place each of these young men may have come to grief, may have hurt someone, may have been brought to good counsel and treatment, or simply continued to fantasize an end game without acting on it.

But in this time and place, in the United States of America, each was able with credit card and basic computer skills to fill their shopping carts with lethal weapons. They can be delivered to your door without much more fanfare than a medium pizza.

Unlike all other personal weapons the gun is fast; it can respond to an impulse and the movement of a finger; it is immediate; it can be instantly lethal, and it permits some distance, some emotional and physical distance. It allows the user, the killer, to depersonalize the victims.

In Canada, over the years, I have seen many young men who fit the description in that first paragraph. Some responding to terrible childhoods; some to persistent social and academic failure; others to developing psychotic illnesses; some whose grievances were clearly delusional.

At no time have I feared them. Because they did not have access to guns. If there is a gun in the home I insist it be removed from the home.

Some I have been able to help, to treat, along with social workers, nurses, psychologists, alternative educational programs, family support.

I would fear them if I knew they could proudly or secretly collect an arsenal of handguns and assault rifles in their bedrooms.

Eggs break when you drop them on the kitchen floor.  We could spend an enormous amount of time and money looking for a bio-engineering solution, some genetic splicing, to create a breed of chicken that will lay eggs with resilient shells.

We could spend an enormous amount of time and money trying (and probably failing) to engineer a foolproof assessment system and an implementation program that might keep guns out of the wrong hands without interfering with those cherished second amendment rights.

Or we could stop dropping the eggs.