Mass Shooters Are Less “Psychotic” Than Commonly Believed

One of the very understandable, beliefs, and possibly myths, about the past few decades of mass shooting incidents this country and others have suffered in a seemingly increase in occurrence of these horrific events, that most if not all of the shooters are “crazy,” or psychotic, actively mentally ill, deranged or just plain “off the chain.”

One of the earliest riveting examples of this was the ?Long Island Railway shooter of a number of years ago, who went on a shooting rampage killing a number of passengers randomly. It did turn out that he was indeed very psychotic and had been suffering from a major unchecked psychotic disorder, and that his shooting rampage was delusionally driven. This came out at his trial very clearly through testimony. His case was one of the national consciousness level cases that locked this sometimes erroneous impression into the national psyche and elevated  such a rare fluke like event to a nearly universally accepted knee jerk easy explanation whenever another of these incidents occurred. This was driven by the reassuring power to all of us at some level that we were ‘by odds’ safe from ever coming into the sights of such a rare individual.

However this method of distancing ourselves from the arena of the fantasied “remote” possibility of such a tragedy touching our lives was strained as it seemed that seemingly an everyday Joe husband, with over controlling jealous though often unsupported rages killing their  wives were found not to be mentally ill and acting out of a different social phenomenon. The beginning of the school shootings, perhaps the one of Arkansas a number of years before Columbia in which literally a young middle school student commandeered his family’s rife and started sniper shooting at his school mates began to jolt the national explanation out of credibility and point toward a more unsettling state of affairs, that one did not have to be stereo-typically “nuts,” crazy,” or psychotic, that ordinary persons including kids could suddenly be moved to commit such horrendous acts.

It started to be harder and harder to maintain as the automatic self reassuring explanation that made one feel safe if one was able to attribute the cause of the next incident to a mental vision of the very rare deranged killer who popped up out the lottery bowl ping pong ball numbers making their appearance “against all odds.”

Now comes a study that proves that psychotic symptoms, the behavioral and mental markers, identifiers, characteristics and legally accepted criteria for psychotic mental illness mostly are NOT present in the make up or motivating factors of mass shooters and are NOT the driving cause for their shooting episodes.

This article entitled “Hallucinations Rarely Precede Mass Shootings, Originally Posted by Yasmin Anwar-UC Berkeley on May 13, 2015,” makes for enlightened reading and offers welcome, though unsettling, additional information and increased basis for understanding somewhat more fully the motivations of the modern mass shooters from teens to adults. The research  proven fact derived from interviews post shooting acts conclusively shows that the vast majority of mass shooters did not have psychotic symptoms such as delusions or hallunications driving their acts of mass shootings as is more and more commonly thought by the public and it seems by our all too superficial national media in their hyperdrive for easy explanations for the news events that cover endlessly to fill the bottomless pits of 24 hour a day news cycles.

Some of the more relevant and somewhat startling points of counterintuitive knowledge include:

that a literature review of over 300 violent incidents in the United States found only 12 percent occurred in the setting of active psychosis and were derived by the false beliefs an perceptions that are part and parcel of actively psychotic mental states.

Other foundations and reasons for such violence involved brutality, anger toward separated spouses, rampant substance abuse and access to firearms at the times of heightened stimulant states to violence. These were far, far more common precipitants to mass violence than elements of psychosis.

“High-profile mass shootings capture public attention and increase vigilance of people with mental illness,” says lead author Jennifer Skeem, a clinical psychologist and associate dean of research at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley, stated in the study: :our findings clearly show that psychosis rarely leads directly to violence.”

Researchers focused on the most violent patients tracked in the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment study, a major 1998 analysis of more than 1,100 offenders who had been discharged from psychiatric facilities.

Specifically, they looked at a subgroup of 100 high-risk patients, who had been involved in two or more violent incidents in the year after they were discharged from a psychiatric facility, to establish their mental states at the time they committed acts of violence.

“We wanted to examine the small group of people with repeated violence and see how consistently these violent incidents were caused by hallucinations and delusions,” Skeem says.

In a preceding study headed by Dr. Skeem, records of prior mentally ill offenders who has committed severe acts of violence were interviewed about what they were thinking and feeling immediately before they engaged in the acts of violence; as an additional source of corroborating data, the retrospective information their friends and family members had to contribute about the times of the offenses were collected.

The very telling finding was proven that psychosis occurred prior to the offenses and multiple violent acts in only 12 percent of the violent acts these patients who had been incarcerated for their offenses following their release for these acts!  Far more telling was the finding was the common circumstance that in subsequent violent acts in these offenders whose prior acts HAD been committed in states free of mental illness.

For the last few months in the Boston Marathon Tsaronov trial and the Batman Theater Killer shooting in Aurora movie theater trials, we have been and will be further subjected to the confusing airing of definitions of psychosis in legal terms, whether the shooters were suffering from mental illness or not. There may even be yet another “battle of the experts,” of forensic examiners who draw diametrically opposed conclusions about the mental mind set of James Wilson, Colorado shooter. These cases usually further confuse the public who cannot be expected to be intimately familiar with the complicated and subtle fine points of legal definitions of insanity as it relates to legal culpability. Yet these differences between the long evolved legal historical bases of legal insanity and psychiatric clinical definitions of insanity/psychosis have been essential for rational use by the criminal justice system to make functional decisions of such portent.

These trials and the inevitable future similar trials as further perpetrators of mass shootings and murderous violence, will hopefully gradually elevate the public’s grasp of the bases for our country’s determinations concerning these baffling and crimes with causative factors that almost always involve factors and long evolved highly personality motives outside the experiences of nearly all of the rest of us.


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