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Aurora, Colombine: Mental Illness & School Shootings

July 29, 2012

Following the Aurora massacre,  Dave Cullen, a Columbine reporter reminded us that our first instincts about that earlier shooting were wrong. You may recall that most of the media/nation rushed to the conclusion that this was the act of psychopaths. That’s actually a bit more comforting than imagining that the shooting could have been committed by one of your own teenage children, suffering from a mood disorder; one who entertained suicidal thoughts for more than a year before the killings. Granted the initial judgment was half-right, as the second killer at Columbine had more the profile of a psychopath.  But as a psychologist, I think we owe it to ourselves to understand the context of those kids who become suicidal, then homicidal. 

One quarter of those who have a mood disorder are diagnosed by the age of 14. The rest are diagnosed by the time they’re 26. A significant risk then are those kids, ages 18-26 who no longer live at home, and are no longer overseen by a parent who might catch the early symptoms of distress. Fully 40% of college students will experience a debilitating depression.  Ten percent get help. 

When students are in transition (as Holmes was who had recently fallen off his stellar trajectory of a doctoral pursuit), they are more at risk.  The use of drugs or alcohol add to impulsivity as well. The stringency of reporting danger to self or other requires a high bar, and often when successful, only gets a 3 day hospital admission. And let’s not forget that the vast majority of us with a diagnosable mood disorder are not violent.

We can blame the college or general mental health system. But all mental health systems rely on self-report. I’d suggest that most troubled individuals don’t reveal their premeditated plans, or report a build up of an arsenal of weapons, such as Holmes had. 

While increasing the public knowledge of risk factors in youth is an excellent start,  we also need to ask our elected officials to acknowledge that “the right to bear arms” was a constitutional artifact of the founders’ wish to enable citizens to protect themselves from an overpowering rule by monarchy or dictatorship.  That is no longer the case.  Whet Moser presents a compelling argument for limiting and highly regulating the sale of assault weapons and semi-automatic weapons. There are just as many despairing youth in other countries. Not as many mass murders. 

As you read the tragic  accounts of the victims, and their families, please do not feel helpless. Please do not blame out of that sense of powerlessness. Please respond–the culture and its laws need to change.


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