Psychiatric Considerations in Colorado Shooting

Posted on July 20th, 2012 by Dr. Blumenfield

Early this morning I received phone calls from various news outlets asking me to give an instant psychiatric opinion on the shooting and the shooter of the terrible incident in Colorado. I knew nothing about the incident and could never comment specifically on a person I had not examined and of course couldn’t talk about someone that I did examine.

Could Mental Illness Be Involved?

However, I understands that there is a strong public interest when something like this happens. There is a natural inclination to believe that the shooter must be “crazy”, meaning a person with mental disorder. This is a way of distancing oneself from some abhorrent behavior. The fact is that one in five people do have significant mental problems. But it is also true that people with severe mental illness (usually defined as schizophrenia, often with delusion or severe depression ) are no more likely to show violent behavior than those without these conditions. Such persons should be even less inclined to violence when they have been properly treated. Even when one looks at the relatively small amount of violent behavior seen in people discharged from a psychiatric hospital, it is usually directed at people know to them rather than random violence.

My reading of the scientific literature doesn’t tell us anything about this particular shooter in Colorado. He may very well have been psychotic (out of touch with reality) and have ideas and thoughts which led him to do this act. Whether or not he was psychotic, I am confident if we knew everything about his life experience, inner feelings and thoughts, we would be able to understand his anger or his fantasies which led him to plan and carry out this horrible deed. There is also the possibility that he used alcohol and or drugs which disinhibited him or even made him psychotic. Although his lawyers may very well mount an insanity defense and try to prove that he was under the influence of a mental illness, they will have a difficult task especially since this was obviously planned and deliberately carried out rather than impulsively done. Even if we can understand the psychological determinants of this behavior, it doesn’t at all in any way justify or excuse it.

Columbine and Other School Shootings

People will no doubt make comparisons with the Columbine High School shooting that by coincidence occurred in nearby Littleton, Colorado. There also were several other similar type school shootings in recent memory. The U.S. Secret Service conducted a comprehensive study of the attackers and the circumstances involved in 37 incidents of targeted school violence that occurred between 1974 and 2000.. They concluded that a history of having been the subject of a mental health evaluations, diagnosed with a mental disorder or involved in substance abuse did not appear to be prevalent among the attackers, however, most of the attackers showed some history of suicidal attempts or thoughts, or a history of feeling extreme depression or desperation. Most of the attackers felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack.

The Texas Tower Shooter

There also was the well know 1966 case of Charles Whitman, The Texas Tower Shooter. He was a student at the University of Texas in Austin who killed 16 people and injured 32 others before he was killed by the police . It turned out that he had a dysfunctional family, used amphetamines but also was determined to have glioblastoma which is a highly aggressive brain tumor. It was believed that this brain tumor played a role in his actions.

The Traumatic Effects Will Linger

Today’s traumatic event in Colorado is obviously a tragedy for the victims and their families which will never be forgotten by those close to anyone touched by this event. It will cause painful grieving among the families and friends of those who lost their lives. It will also cause Post Traumatic Stress Symptoms in persons who witnessed this event in person as well as many who will be impacted as they follow the story in the media. Young people will be particularly vulnerable as they identify with people like themselves who were looking forward to an enjoyable fantasy movie and instead were confronted with a reality which they could have never imagined.

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