Modern Deadly Ambiguity: Mass Shootings, Guns and the Mentally Ill

The media is now filled with various statistics quoting the factoid that in over 200 days we have had over 200 mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are variously defined as a shooting incident in which three, or now more commonly the definition requires four victims by a perpetrator. The victims may be all in one site like the James Holmes Colorado theater shooting, or in more than one location where a shooter will shoot usually first members of his (recalling that most mass shooters are male), a spouse or estranges spouse or intimate partner, and then shoot members of the public at another location.

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Some Scientific Backdrop To Stalking

My previous past concerned my own harrowing experience with a determined stalker. I had intended though I had not specified in that post that I would follow it up with a more studied explanation from “the literature” of my profession on stalking.

The author is a forensic psychologist of great skill and renown, having read a number of his articles and heard a few addresses by him at really good meetings, I turned to his body of work to try to find a single piece that I hoped would cover this subject well. My memory was right and through the magic of Google I found just such a source that is comprehensive and well written enough to actually be understood, no small task in our complex field who subject matter often strains the limits of language.

The author is Dr. J. Reid Meloy and his piece though a bit dated, published in 2007, is quite good and worth reading. The reference in the old fashioned method is “Editorial: Stalking: the state of the science,” in Criminal Behavior and Mental Health, 17: 1-17, 2007, John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Focusing on the psychological phenomenology of stalking, he writes of the legal consensus that “three elements are necessary: an intentional activity, a credible threat, and the induction of fear in the victim.” He further expands these elements writing :it seems apparent that there must be a pattern of unwanted pursuit, the behavior must pose an implicit or explicit threat o the safety of the victim, and the victim must experience fears as a result of the intentional behavior of the pursuer.”

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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.


Stalking, the Next Dangerous Aberrant Gray Zone Mental Health Malady

This week the British paper, The Telegraph, published a well done article on malevolent stalking. Entitled “Rejected, obsessed and erotomanic: Inside the mind of a stalker,” it gives a well done examination of a current British case currently undergoing legal prosecution. It makes for informed reading and is still somewhat chilling. Among its relevant points are that a very substantial proportion of cases repeat their offenses and dangerous, terrorizing behaviors, even after being convicted and punished. They are not the ordinary ‘criminal recidivists, as they learn nothing from the punishment experiences but are largely NOT the psychopath who learns nothing from experience…These folks are different and still not well understood by my discipline. The psychotic ones are often fairly easy to discern in evaluations. The others are the products of family training by abusive parents, and the products of their unique personal developmental experiences which makes everything “imprecise,” and individualized.

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