Dr Jeffrey Magnavita


The Big Question:

“Shooting Rampages - is it really a mental health issue? And what can we do?”


Residing in the state of Connecticut where the horrific mass murder of 20 young children and 6 adults occurred, without warning on December 14th, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I have witnessed a major seismic shift at many levels of the ecological system. The shock waves continue to move outward in concentric rings activating unresolved trauma and vicarious trauma in many people involved and affected by relentless media reports. In the United States, which has one of the highest gun violence rates of any industrialized country, there has a love affair with guns and a lack of regulation, with any regulation being contested heavily by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Limited empirical data or statistics about what works is available as research on gun violence and impact of regulation has not been funded.

Many pundits have stepped forward to explain why this type of event seems to be occurring with greater frequency; the perpetrators being young socially isolated and generally psychiatrically disturbed males. Some commentators blame violent video games, Hollywood’s violent movies, easy access to guns, lack of identification of mentally ill individuals, and the result of a broken mental health system. Others say that guns are not the problem and the leader of the NRA opined that the problem is that there are not enough good folk who are armed suggesting that principals and teachers if armed could prevent such atrocities. A Presidential Commission headed by Vice-President Joe Biden has been established and is creating a great deal of controversy and kick back from the gun lobby.

Complexity theory is useful in trying to sort out the multiplicity of facets and implications of this event and the shock waves that have spread to individuals, parents, families, communities, social, and political systems. At the micro-level of the system, it seems fairly certain to say that the young man who committed this atrocity was mentally ill and by most reports he seems to have been a socially isolated loaner. His mother who he killed with her own bushmaster assault weapon reportedly home schooled him and was worried about his launch into independence. She apparently took him to the shooting range where he learned how to shoot. He seemed troubled by all reports and the public has not been informed whether he was involved in mental health care. His family situation was problematic and his parents divorced, leaving him home with his mother. We will never know why he murdered his mother before heading to the Newtown, CT elementary school where he went on a rampage against innocent children for unknown reasons.

The human ecological system fluctuates between chaos and order, and at times as in any complex system, a convergence of elements leads to a an event that is not easily explained by linear causality (i.e., mental illness, access to guns, dysfunctional family, neurobiological disturbance, personality disorder, etc.). Complex systems such as the human system from the individual personality system to the sociocultural and family systems create attractor states. These states result in a convergence in the system. For example, the access to violent video games that desensitize vulnerable adolescents, the easy access to high powered semi-automatic weapons and  conditions of psychopathology create a potentially toxic attractor state. The social system including  responses from the media the over exposure to these events can become attractors for other individuals who because of their own vulnerability and rage are drawn into this attractor condition.

This is a obviously a very complex expression with convergence and reactionary processes at man levels of the system. Whether there will be a rearrangement of the forces in operation is still to be seen.

Jeffrey J. Magnavita

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