By Steve Joordens, PhD
“Why care about another human being if no human being on earth seems to care about you? And what if every human being on earth seems to actively dislike you? How do you feel towards them?”
The Mental Illness Perspective as Commonly Voiced
With each new mass shooting we hear those who are opposed to gun control instead pointing the finger towards mental illness. They argue that if more money was spent helping those with mental issues there would be less gun violence. Typically, the argument goes no deeper than that. But is gun violence truly related to a mental disorder? Will enhancing the amount of funding for mental health prevent shootings? The evidence suggests not.
Those who have studied the characteristics of random mass shooters have found a relatively consistent pattern. The majority of mass shooters do not have schizophrenia. They are not manic or obsessive-compulsive. The do not suffer from dissociation disorders or personality disorders. They are not mentally ill. They may be depressed, and even potentially suicidal, but is that possibly a straightforward reaction to what is really a social illness?
The Role of Social Wellness, and What Happens When Its Lacking
In an interview with Politico, Jillian Peterson and James Densley discuss the typical genesis of mass shooters. Peterson puts it this way
“There’s this really consistent pathway. Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying. Then you see the build toward hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers.”
Organizations like GenWell have been arguing for some time that in addition to physical and mental wellness, we also need to be considering one’s social wellness. Social wellness can be measured simply in terms of the number of close social connections that one shares with others. High levels of social connection are, in fact, the predict one’s happiness and overall wellbeing. However, when one has trouble creating and maintaining social connections, then social isolation and loneliness, in some cases at least, this can give way to anger.
This is the common history of mass shooters, a history of not fitting in, or being isolated and often bullied by one’s peers. For whatever reason some children do not learn the skills of social connection and they become “that kid”, the one that doesn’t have a clique of any sort, that one nobody else wants to play or hang out with. Or perhaps they come to a school with some sort of reputation or “style” that is perceived as different, and they do not have the social skills to rise above these things and make friends despite them. They end up alone and disliked by all of their peers. What must that feel like, especially within the context of a socially-charged school environment?
The Critical Role Empathy (or Lack of It) Plays in Such Shootings
Many of us react in shock when we hear about school shootings. We will say things like “How can somebody kill innocent children? They must be crazy!”. Well, the first psychological issue relevant to killing a random person or people is a lack of empathy. Empathy is that force that makes us feel connected to other humans. It facilitates us in sharing the suffering of friends, and pushes us to give comfort when, say, we see a friend crying.
Empathy develops through our caring relationships, our close social connections. We worry about those we care about, and we appreciate that they worry about us. If we grow up with virtually no close social connections, it’s hardly surprising that we might have much lower level of empathy. That is, empathy develops with practice. Why care about another human being if no human being on earth seems to care about you? And what if every human being on earth seems to actively dislike you? How do you feel towards them? How much practice would you get at being empathetic towards others.
One might expect that being a social isolate might make one depressed and perhaps even suicidal. It does, and in fact many childhood suicides also have social isolation as a common characteristic. In some cases, however, anger plays a role.
A given person may indeed have come to the opinion that their life is no longer worth living, but that leaves open the question of how they will choose to die. Will they die quietly at their own hands, or will they make a statement to the world, venting their anger for never being embraced by others? For mass shooters, often it is the latter path that is the one travelled.
What Can Be Done?
To be clear, access to guns is a big part of the gun violence story. Any serious attempt at reducing mass shootings would include some reasonable levels of gun control. But if we also want to consider relevant psychological factors, it is not sufficient to just point to mental illness and increase some pool of mental illness funding. Funding mental illness efforts is great of course, but if we really want to get at the psychological level of mass shootings, it’s not about putting more funding into mental illness, we should instead use that money to fund programs that enhance social connectedness.
And if we truly care, we can do something about it. Members of the school communities know who fits in well and who does not. It’s typical that eventual shooters had earlier been identified by their teachers or peers as the sort of student who might be a shooter. If individuals struggling with social connection can be identified, then the potential exists to do something to help them, whether or not they ultimately might become mass shooters.
In general, we need to do a better job teaching social connection skills to our students, and we should be actively seeking out the misfits and helping them to find a niche of some sort, a place to feel valued and to perhaps connect with others. Perhaps the first step though is for all of us to recognize the importance of social connection, and to recognize that social illness is distinct from mental illness. Framing the problem accurately is the first step to being solving it appropriately.