The Mind. From “Life expectancy mapped for people with mental disorders” by University of Queensland, 2019, (https://medicalexpress.com/) COO Public Domain.
I was sitting across from Jaimie, his feet up on the beaten, scarred wooden coffee table between us, he was relaxed on the worn-out living room couch. Well-worn and showing signs of considerable use? Oh, yes! Full of holes and not fit for human or animal – not even close! In some strange way, the old couch was somewhat emblematic of the man who took comfort in its recline. Jaimie has seen life – he’s seen more life and more horror in his 38 years than many of us ‘normal people’ might see in a lifetime.
“I got two bullets…” he says casually, “but I taken more outta the box. ‘Had my boys die in my arms…” His somber tone was not at all boastful, his demeanor demure, reflective. His eyes momentarily focused on some distant, long-ago street scene burned deep into his psyche, as though it was no more than a few feet in front of him. He had long ago come to terms with the violence of his life, his upbringing, his neighborhood – and his survivor’s guilt. Real trauma runs deep, scarring the mind as long ago, the devil’s fingers scarred the land, leaving the mountains, the valleys, the gorges, the rivers of the earth in their wake.
I was there to listen, to help heal, to care. ‘Jaimie’ is not his real name, but the prologue is real – very real. ‘Jaimie’ could be representative of any of our clients at any place on the path of their own personal journey of healing and recovery. But Jaimie never picked up a weapon, a gun or a knife, a multitude of which he has had easy access to for his entire life and walked onto a school campus intending to create absolute mayhem. In fact, I am struggling to recall the background of any of our school shooters even slightly resembling Jaimie’s.
So, as I sat there with Jaimie, my feet up on the coffee table now too, we continued to talk, doctor and patient, counselor and client, therapist and friend, and my mind briefly wandered…
“So why do they do it? Why do these seemingly normal kids who appear to have the world at their feet, who will never see a life of murder, drugs and anarchy even remotely close to Jaimie’s, all of a sudden decide that one day, they will walk into their school with the sole intention of committing murder? They must be insane?”
Well, that seems to be the most logical go-to, doesn’t it? Everybody goes there first – right? “It’s insanity!”
Well, in one respect, yes – it absolutely is. But is Jaimie insane? Are any of the other men or women to whom we provide an opportunity to heal, insane? Are they all mentally ill? Well, if you ask the CDC(R), it sure seems like they think that’s the case! If you simply make a judgment call based on the sheer volume of antipsychotics, antidepressants, pain meds, and sleep aids that I manage on behalf of my clients, then yes, it may be the case – or so it would seem. The shortcomings of the California Department of Corrections state-managed healthcare system are a discussion for a whole other time… so let’s not go there now.
When it comes to school shootings, designating the offender as simply ‘mentally ill’ is almost offensive. It’s an easy out, a go-to excuse, a catch-all phrase not even understood by many of the public, especially the news media, who are so quick to throw it out there.
(It seems that understanding the psyche of a street-thug/gang member might be a whole lot more straight forward though!)
What is Mental Illness?
So, what is mental illness? According to the DSM-V, ‘mental disorders’ are characterized by problems that people experience with their mind (thoughts) and their mood (feelings) and are composed of a symptom checklist that primarily focuses on behaviors and thoughts.1 While there are a veritable plethora of disorders that fall under the catch-all heading of ‘mental illness,’ there’s one that bears closer examination. The one that many people quickly and inaccurately mislabel and misuse: blaming psychopathy or sociopathy. Perhaps understanding the important differentiations might lead to a better understanding of this tragic phenomenon overall.
While many of the general public, especially the media it seems, may rightly assign symptoms as contributors to the outcome, when discussing cause, or ‘why they did it,’ it is not as simple, straight forward, or as easily dismissive as the language of descriptors may make it sound.
Are There Symptoms in Common?
Reviewing the mounds of literature now available on this topic, there are certain themes that seem to re-emerge. Before venturing further down this path, it is important to remember that a profile of the mass-school-shooter does not exist. Much of the insight we do have has come from analyzing the violent fantasies of these potential would-be adolescent shooters.2 Research has found that while these fantasies tend to intensify over the years, intermingled with exaggerated reasoning that the act is to somehow avenge a perceived offense from the past, perhaps the most troubling revelation is that these fantasies tend to take root in young minds that crave recognition.2 In many cases, these would-be offenders are inspired by the notoriety of examples set by shooters from the past.
The seeds of violence tend also to have roots in the somewhat less balanced psyche. Pathological fantasies often go hand-in-hand with a distorted sense of what is just. But experts say that people willing to kill a total stranger don’t all have to have a certain type of mental illness.3 The literature suggests that certain personality and behavioral traits might include alienation, narcissism, depression, inappropriate humor, lack of impulse control, drug use, unmonitored internet use, obsession with violent video games, suicidal ideation, anxiety, anger, psychosis, or delusions of grandeur.3-7 Often, there are also signs of defiance, easy access to weapons, and possibly a failed relationship at some time in the recent or distant past. These may be grouped together under the general heading of personality dynamics.
O.K. – so who doesn’t know someone like this?
Recently, research has suggested that a category most worthy of note when discussing personality dynamics is that of the personality disorder. Approximately 60% of attackers displayed behavioral symptoms such as defiance or impulse control,4 and research has proven that as many as two-thirds of adolescents with recognized conduct disorder can and often do go on to develop a personality disorder as an adult.8
Perhaps one of the most common possibly observed personality traits among attackers is that of narcissism. Furthermore, according to Alathari et al., these individuals all appeared to lack empathy toward others and derived sadistic pleasure from the thought of hurting or killing.4
These traits seem indicative of a psychopath, don’t they?
We are pretty darn sure they are not attributable to Autism or Asperger’s – thank you very much! Take those two off the list if you had them there, they are simply developmental disorders that Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook) and Nikolas Cruz (Parkland) also happened to have.
Psychopathy and Sociopathy – What Is It?
These two terms, used to designate a specific set of mental conditions, have been burned into the mainstream conscience by a Hollywood anxious to capitalize on the misunderstanding and fears of a terribly uneducated general public! Despite the fictional evolution of the Hollywood psychopath, the clinical evolution is nowhere near as dramatic! While both terms refer to someone who has a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), the only real difference between the designations is the ability to feel remorse for one’s actions. (The psychopath feels no remorse or empathy.) According to the American Psychiatric Association, diagnosis of ASPD is based on an individual who is over the age of 18, having at least three of the following seven-character traits:9
- Doesn’t respect social norms or laws. They consistently break laws or overstep social boundaries.
- Lies, deceives others, uses false identities or nicknames, and uses others for personal gain.
- Doesn’t make any long-term plans. They also often behave without thinking of consequences.
- Shows aggressive or aggravated behavior. They consistently get into fights or physically harm others.
- Doesn’t consider their own safety or the safety of others.
- Doesn’t follow up on personal or professional responsibilities. This can include repeatedly being late to work or not paying bills on time.
- Doesn’t feel guilt or remorse for having harmed or mistreated others.
There are other possible symptoms, but these are at the core. Based on this new understanding, let’s not throw around the term ‘psychopath’ as a noun when referencing the school shooter anymore – O.K.? At least not outside a Hollywood movie studio backlot! While psychopathy may be a symptom or characteristic of an individual’s overall diagnosis, when coupled with other behavior and personality traits it does not name the governing cause, it is only one piece of a much larger puzzle. Let’s accurately refer to it from now on as ‘antisocial personality disorder’ – which is what it actually is!
While ongoing research continues to give us more insight into the psychological make-up of the mind of the mass-school-shooter, and new information is emerging all the time, there is one characteristic these individuals seem to have in common that we have known about since we looked at Columbine.
They like to talk, to broadcast their intent…
What is ‘Leakage’?
Perhaps this trait may be somehow related to the need for recognition, but after 20 years of post-Columbine events, ‘leakage’ is still considered one of the most important clues that may precede a shooter’s violent act.
‘Leakage’ is the term used when a student intentionally or unintentionally reveals clues to feelings, thoughts, attitudes, fantasies, or inner conflict that may indicate violent intentions.10 They may be cries for help, a boastful arrogance, innuendoes, predictions, ultimatums, or subtle threats. They may take the form of web postings, stories, diary entries, poems, letters, songs, drawings, videos, or even tattoos.10 Leakage may even involve a potential shooter trying to enlist the aid of friends or classmates to prepare for the violence, many times through deception. Theorized by O’Toole et al., for the first time in 2000, there is a single character trait these individuals all seem to unfailingly have in common – the need to tell someone, consciously or unconsciously, what they are planning to do.
‘Leakage’ might also present itself in the form of an obsession. For example, an obsession with or an overwhelming number of references to firearms in normal daily discussions, in drawings, even in creative endeavors, or similar projects. In many if not most of the documented cases, someone observed a threatening communication, or possibly even received one directly but failed to report it or take any action to alert authorities of a concern.4
It might seem logical to assume that if the individual who is contemplating such a violent act is talking about it (or showing signs or other ‘red flag’ indicators), there are other signs, clues or traits that may be discoverable with minimal investigation. In this case, this conglomerate of indicators is what the CIA calls a ‘constellation of concerns.’4
More to Come…
In addition to leakage, the alert parent, teacher, or friend may quickly become aware of other characteristics that point to the potential of a violent act. The preceding article discusses the possible character traits of mental disorders, but there must be things or circumstances which feed these conditions. I will discuss some of those ‘things’ in the coming weeks… things that may seem obvious once illuminated outside the popular mainstream conversation but governed by powerful lobbies who do everything they can to control the antithetical popular narrative.
See you next week!
- Grohol, J. Symptoms & Treatments of Mental Disorders. [electronic] 2020 January 27 [cited 2020 February 9]; Available from: https://psychcentral.com/disorders/.
- Robertz, F.J., Deadly Dreams: What Motivates School Shootings?, in Scientific American. 2007: online.
- Victor, D., Mass Shooters are All Different. Except for One Thing: Most Are Men., in The New York Times. 2018: online.
- Alathari, L., et al., Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence, U.S.S.S.N.T.A.C. (NTAC), Editor. 2019.
- Grossman, D. and K. Paulsen, Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing. 2016, New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
- Ordway, D., How journalists cover mass shootings: Research to consider, in Journalist’s Resource. 2019, Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
- Portner, J., All Threats Aren’t Equal, FBI Cautions. Education Week, 2000. 20(2): p. 1-20.
- Kjelsberg, E., Exploring the link between conduct disorder in adolescence and personality disorders in adulthood. Psychiatric Times, 2006. 23(8).
- Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). [electronic] 2013; Available from: psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm.
10. O’Toole, M.A. and N.C.f.t.A.o.V.C. (U.S.). The school shooter: A threat assessment perspective. 2000, FBI Academy: Quantico, VA.