School Safety Series Part 3: The gray areas of mental health and school shootings

Cory William Berlekamp
Twitter: @Cberlekamp

Following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. on Feb. 14, the issue of mental health and the correlation to gun violence once again becomes a point of contention between political and social groups.

On Feb. 18 President of the American Psychological Association, Jessica Henderson Daniel, released a statement concerning the shootings.

            “While law enforcement is still piecing together the shooter’s motives, some public figures and news reports are focusing on his mental health,” Daniel said. “It is important to remember that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness.”

            Daniel goes on to state that the continuing conversation is a “disservice to the victims” and “stigmatizes others with mental illness”. While this may be true, there are still studies that point to the correlation between school shootings and mental health issues.

            According to a study on school shootings published in the Current Psychiatry Report, the FBI could not come up with a specific profile of a school shooter.

            “They concluded that overall there were too many variations in these traits and dynamics to develop any sort of distinctive ‘profile’ of school shooters.” The FBI has 47 “descriptors” that range from personality traits to school and family. “It is noteworthy that many of the identified personality traits were related to mental health symptoms including narcissism, poor anger management, fascination with violence, poor self-esteem and a lack of empathy”

According to Dr. Andrea Mata, a psychology professor at the University of Findlay, some of the symptoms line up with aggressive and antisocial disorder.

“One misconception is when people hear antisocial, they think it is people who don’t want to spend time with other people but that is not what antisocial behavior is,” Mata said. “Antisocial behavior is going against societal norms.”

A list of symptoms of antisocial behavior on the National Institute of Health’s website include showing no guilt or remorse, often angry or fighting with others, and break the law repeatedly. 

“If we are talking about people who are just antisocial and aggressive and not psychopathic or sociopathic, the earlier we can treat them the better,” said Mata.

For the adolescent group, Mata says the best way is using multisystemic therapy, an intensive community and family based therapy. Mata is currently doing a study on mass shooters that fall in to the adult onset group, a group only recently recognized as a trajectory of antisocial disorder.

“It is the idea that people don’t engage in antisocial or aggressive behavior for the first 18 years of their life and then something happens between the ages of 18 and 25 where they start to engage in that behavior.” Mata said. “You have a lot going on during that stage and if you haven’t developed appropriate coping mechanisms and coping skills, you can essentially break or snap.”

According to Mata, 13 of the 71 mass shooters her team has studied fit in to the category of the adult onset group. Also, out of the 71 shooters, 69% had stressful events that occurred within the last year of the shooting.

“Could that have triggered it? Maybe, possibly, it could be an interaction with a stressful event in addition to not having coping skills but there is no way to know for sure,” said Mata.

Mata says that diagnosing someone with this disorder is not about a one-time incident but a pattern of behavior however it all depends on the intensity of the event. She says the Parkland shootings point to antisocial and aggressive behavior but she has not studied the shooter enough to know either way.

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