Why Mass Murderers May Not Be Very Different From You Or Me


Opinion piece by Richard A Friedman in NYT, 8 Aug 2019.

The current [and for some while] habit of dismissing mass murders as acts of “mentally ill monsters” has no basis in anything but unthinkin predjudice and habitual hatred – ironically of the same kind that drives many of these acts.

Richard A. Friedman shows how those who act in such ways are like any of us, and can become consumed by hatred.

“Perhaps there is a beast

…maybe it is us.”

– William Golding

Large scale studies have shown that only a minority of “mass murders” [typically classified by researchers as homicides of 4 or more people] are conducted by people who diagnosable wiuth “mantal illnbess”.

As Friedman says it …

people in the grip of ordinary emotion are capable of carrying out heinous acts of violence;
you don’t need to have a mental illness to be a “monster.” 

And

The scary truth is that ordinary human hatred and aggression are far more dangerous than any psychiatric illness.

And when it comes to blind faith in mental health services and the belief system at their core- psychiatric diagnosis – has as magical powers to predict acts of violence…

The notion that we can identify mass killers before they act is, as yet, an epidemiologic fiction.

Experienced psychiatrists fare no better than a roll of the dice at predicting violence.

The monster is [within] us.

How true it is that we need more psychiatrists and others “mental health professionals” to be so honest.

Why Mass Murderers May Not Be Very Different From You or Me

Most of them are not mentally ill. They are just filled with hate — and well armed.

By psychiatrist and a contributing opinion writer.

CreditIllustration by Nicholas Konrad; Photographs by The Image Bank/Getty Images and Rob Curran, via Unsplash

After a gunman massacred 22 people in an El Paso Walmart last week, President Trump declared that mass killers are “mentally ill monsters.”

It was a convenient — and misleading — explanation that diverted public attention from a darker possibility behind such unimaginable horror: The killer might have been rational, just filled with hate.

It’s reasonable to think that anyone who guns down 22 human beings in cold blood must be deranged or de facto have a mental illness. But the truth about mass killers and the link to mental health is more complicated than that.

One of the largest studies of mass killers, conducted by Dr. Michael Stone and involving 350 people, found that only 20 percent had a psychotic illness; the other 80 percent had no diagnosable mental illness — just the everyday stress, anger, jealousy and unhappiness the rest of us have.

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Likewise, an F.B.I. study of active shooters between 2000 and 2013 found that only 25 percent had ever received a psychiatric diagnosis and just 5 percent had a psychotic illness.

(Some of my psychiatric colleagues like to point out that mass killers commonly have histories of being physically and sexually abused. Sure, but given the prevalence of such abuse in America, it seems obvious that a vast majority of traumatized people do not turn into mass killers.)

Still, the clear implication of these findings is that people in the grip of ordinary emotion are capable of carrying out heinous acts of violence; you don’t need to have a mental illness to be a “monster.”

We can’t know for sure whether the suspect in the El Paso killings, Patrick Crusius, 21, was mentally ill without detailed knowledge of his personal and medical history. But his online writing suggests we should not be so fast to assume that he is.

In a manifesto attributed to him, Mr. Crusius railed against immigration, described a plan to separate America into racially distinct areas and warned that white people were being replaced by foreigners. He said that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

To me, the statement appeared logical, coherent and not particularly rambling or delusional. Strikingly, the manifesto seemed to echo what Mr. Trump has been saying all along about immigrants. For example, at a recent Florida rally the president said, “You look at what is marching up, that is an invasion!”

Seen from this perspective, it is entirely plausible that the El Paso killer is a rational person who happens to be inspired by a hateful racist ideology.

The scary truth is that ordinary human hatred and aggression are far more dangerous than any psychiatric illness. Just think of the many people driven to mass murder because they were fired by employers or dumped by girlfriends. In all likelihood, they were not mentally ill but simply full of rage — and well armed.

In fact, mental illness contributes to about 3 percent of violent crime in America. The best evidence shows that there is a very small increase in the risk of violence only for those with serious mental disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The notion that we can identify mass killers before they act is, as yet, an epidemiologic fiction. These individuals typically avoid contact with the mental health care system. Even if they didn’t, experienced psychiatrists fare no better than a roll of the dice at predicting violence.

Other mass killers bear this out. Brendon Tarrant, who murdered 51 people last March in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, was found at trial not to be mentally ill. Rather, he was a white supremacist who planned his carnage for two years and was driven by an anti-immigrant and racist ideology similar to Mr. Crusius’s. And like Mr. Crusius, he believed in a white supremacist conspiracy theory called “the great replacement,” which posits that white Europeans, with the complicity of “elites,” are being replaced by non-European people through mass immigration.

Then there is Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people in 2015 in a church in Charleston, S.C. He too espoused racial hatred in an online manifesto. Though he was given a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder and mild autism by an evaluating psychiatrist, neither of these diagnoses involved a state of psychosis that might have rendered him unable to comprehend the nature of his actions.

Judging from their manifestoes, you have to wonder whether, at the very least, these killers expected social approval from those who shared their racist ideology, to say nothing of a desire for fame.

Given the global resurgence of white nationalism and xenophobia in recent years, is it really surprising that a few individuals have responded to this climate of hate by violently channeling such ideas? After all, we are social animals who are easily swayed by our environment. And that environment is awash in rage these days.

What this suggests is that bolstering mental health programs — while a worthy goal — will not solve our mass shootings epidemic. More effective policies might involve gun control, including enhancing background checks and expanding so-called extreme risk protection orders, which would allow law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed potentially violent.

This should scare the hell out of all of us. The next mass killer is out there — somewhere — watching very carefully what we say and do to one another. And he may be as sane as you or me.

Richard A. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, and a contributing opinion writer.

Original
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/08/opinion/mass-shootings-mental-health.html

 

 

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