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The Tragic Gabrielle Giffords Shooting - By Chris Gearing

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mental Illness is Not an Explanation for Violence

The tragic shootings in Arizona of US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords once again highlight the link between mental illness and violence. The suspect Jared Loughner reportedly had shown symptoms for years but was never treated. Many of us automatically think that a psychological disorder will predict irrational or even violent behavior in the future. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Millions of people struggle with mood disorders, eating disorders, addiction issues and a host of other problems and are never violent.

In fact the real danger to your physical safety comes from some one who is using some kind of substance—either alcohol or drugs.

In a 2009 analysis of nearly 20,000 people, researchers reported that an increased risk of violence was associated with drug and alcohol problems, regardless of the presence of any mental disorder such as schizophrenia.

We do know that violence is more common when there is paranoid thinking that convinces the offender that others are against him. He feels persecuted, misunderstood, the victim of wrong doing and badly mistreated. If paranoid thinking becomes psychotic-- meaning that he loses touch with reality--things can get very dangerous. Although, he is systematically capable of planning a murder and execute it at this point, he will have no understanding that his judgment is impaired and that is completely out of touch with reality.

So what are some warning signs for violent behavior?

The prediction of violent crimes include the following:

Violent Language: Words are often our first signs of murderous intent and as we see in this case, the suspect had used plenty of violent language on the Internet and at school. When someone is planning to commit violence, their language has themes related to:

  • Revenge
  • Conspiracy
  • Entitlement
  • Grandiosity and attention seeking

Justification for Murder: When someone is about to commit a violent act they begin to justify their crime at least to themselves if not to others. Not only are they convinced that violence is an acceptable choice, they begin to argue that it is the only choice they can make.

Here are the four steps they move through on their way to violence:

  • They believe that they have justification for the crime.
  • They have no alternatives for the achieving the outcome they want
  • The consequences for their actions are acceptable
  • They have the resources and the abilities necessary to carry out mass murder such as access to guns, bullets and tragically the victim.

Danger Comes with Warnings: I am convinced that danger comes with warnings almost every time. However, odd behavior or even threatening behavior is often explained away or misunderstood as something more innocent. Our tendency is to ignore such threats since we conclude that its either none of our business or the person has no malicious intent.

Now, as this tragedy in Arizona illustrates, we have a responsibility as a society to speak up about people we are concerned about. Our community mental health systems must receive the requisite funding to handle the mental health issues of those who need it most.

Advocate for increased mental health services. This young man who allegedly committed these crimes was obviously in serious trouble yet was never treated. We must fundamentally reexamine our mental health system and mandate the new laws and harness new social resources to save not only the victim’s life, but also the life of those who commit such crimes.

Most of all, we need to make sure that our own intuition trumps our rationalizations. If you see disordered behavior, take it seriously. If you are the victim of threats to your safety, do not disregard this. Violent behaviors are predictable if we increase our awareness, learn the warning signs and act to protect ourselves. Pay attention to what is happening and remember that in most cases, the only person who can save your life is you.


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