The Big Question:
“Shooting Rampages – is it really a mental health issue? And what can we do?”
“A mental health issue” is a far more complicated phrase than it may appear. Our first thought is to mental conditions like depression, psychopathy, bipolar, schizophrenia etc. This certainly seems to be a major issue with many of the perpetrators of mass shootings around the world. It is also an issue in relation to serial killers and those that kill for some perverse reward. Murders of passion are often defended as ‘temporary insanity’ and so, mental health is at issue again. Yet mental health and mental illness is an outcome of a complex set of elements.
We are well aware nowadays that we are a product of both our biological dispositions (nature) and how this develops in response to experience (nurture). We ‘experience’ every moment of the day and we process that experience both day and night. Experience will determine the development of everything within us as it both triggers, inhibits and determines current and future gene expression. When we talk about mental issues we are, in the large part, talking about the activity of the brain which then takes us into the complex aspect of mind. Without going into too much discussion, the mind and the brain are relational and bi-directional in effect. It is, therefore, not only mental health, but state of mind that needs to be considered.
The questions around ‘state of mind’ in the US is, why is there this deep, culturally rooted gun culture? It is more than just the possession of firearms. The debate surrounding gun reduction is centered around issues of freedom, liberty, safety and a deep mistrust of government. There is also the strong mindset of the necessity to be in power and in control. The NRA considers it a good idea to arm school teachers or have armed guards at schools to act as a deterrence and as a defense. The presence of guns at Kent State didn’t end that peacefully.
The USA has 3.6 per 100,000 people gun homicides (5.1 overall) whereas Australia has 0.13 (0.97 overall). Canada, which has a large number of guns in civilian possession, has 0.5 (1.8 overall). There seems to be something about the mindset of the US culture that makes it more likely for a gun to be used in a life threatening manner. Brazil is also a very dangerous country with 18.1 per 100,000 gun homicides (22.7 overall). Interestingly, the official number of guns per 100 people in Brazil is recorded as only 8 with the US recording 88.8. The availability of guns in Brazil is either grossly in error or someone is doing a lot of shooting.
The point I wish to make is that it is certainly important to reduce the availability of weapons that can cause death, it is important to monitor the population for mental health and mental illness, but it is also important for a culture to examine itself, what it believes and how it expresses itself both individually and as a collective. The main risk factors for developing mental distress and even psychosis is persistent fear, disconnection from the community and a belief in the need to defend against something. These concerns are problematical when they are explicit, but amplify rapidly when implicit. It is these implicit fears and distresses that can become the non-conscious stereotype threats (see Aronson and Steele, 1995) of a culture that can erupt in violent and distressing ways.
It is not going to be a quick process for the US and other gun/violent-centric countries. This is a cultural issue that goes not only to mental health, but also to mental state. This is a discussion that may require more than one generation. Clearly, it is time to begin such a dialogue. How we do that is the really big question.
Richard Hill MA, MEd, Dip Prof Couns.