The troubled waters of hate and violence we are collectively in are deep and the long-term answers to our own safety, as well as our evolution as a caring culture, are complex. This is my humble attempt to discuss how mental health services as a solution to violent shootings is a myth.
My introduction to mental illness was as a teenager. A boyfriend had spent time, before coming to the school where I met him, at a school for young people with emotional problems. He eventually left the school where we met, returning the year after I graduated. That year he tried to commit suicide. He was a nice guy. In my teens I didn’t really understand what his emotional problems were, though he talked with me a bit about them. Another boyfriend saw a psychiatrist once a week. Another classmate, an unattractive, geeky chess prodigy with few social skills, committed suicide over an “older” women he met at a chess match. I’m sure she never knew of his infatuation or reason for taking his own life.
While in college in Washington D.C. I had more experiences being around people with mental health challenges, people I met from the D.C. community (no, they weren’t politicians). Wanting to be a historian, I primarily studied Asian countries. Courses in the history, anthropology, art and philosophy of Asian cultures filled my two years at American University before I transferred to the University of Oregon and graduated with a degree in social sciences. I did not know these early experiences around people with mental health troubles foreshadowed my eventual work as a social worker, including working in mental health services with people diagnosed with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders.
I was never afraid of my teen-age boyfriend, not then nor years later when he visited me on the west coast. In retrospect, what I did learn about him (some of it from his mother, including his putting cigarettes out on his arm when he was in the school for emotionally challenged children) indicated he likely had schizophrenia. There were few medications available at the time. Though he had an intensity that could be scary, I never thought he’d harm me, he had a kind heart. Other troubled people I knew never seemed dangerous, not only at the time, but also in retrospect after years of working with people struggling with mental illness. When studying for a Master’s degree in psychiatric rehabilitation I read pages of case histories, none were about people dangerous to others. In the years I worked one-on-one with people whose hallucinations, voices, delusions, mood swings and other serious symptoms were very debilitating for them, causing them to be isolated and often behave in bizarre ways, I met with them in their apartments or community settings, where I might have been considered vulnerable compared to those who saw them in clinic settings, yet there was only one person I felt uncomfortable with. I learned people with serious psychiatric disabilities were more likely to harm themselves than others. Statistics back this up. It may happen, but that is not the norm.
If you add personality disorders, and/or drug induced symptoms, you change the picture, and the person.
“there are no reliable cures for insecurity, resentment, entitlement and hatred.”
This quote, from an excellent editorial in the New York Times, “The Mental Health System Can’t Stop Mass Shooters”, could be describing characteristics and attitudes of many people, including some successful politicians who think of their own financial gains over the needs of those they are supposed to be serving; corporate heads who show little concern for the welfare of their employees or the communities where they dump toxic wastes; professionals who take advanced of vulnerable, trusting clients; coaches, teachers, actors or anyone who sexually abuses those they have authority over. The list goes on. These people have personality disorders*, often narcissistic personality disorder, sometimes borderline personality disorder, and they live and work in all areas of our society. Some, not able to be successful within socially acceptable means or the acceptable definition of success, or unable to get the attention they need*, may commit heinous crimes such as rape or murder. They feel entitled to have what they want and someone got in the way of their gratification, someone pissed them off. The difference between the former list and the later example is a matter of opportunity or degrees on the continuum of personality disorders, or both.
People who have narcissistic personality disorder, or borderline personality disorder, are the “mentally ill” who do the most damage to others, and they are the least likely to seek help, or benefit from it if they do. It’s everyone else who has a problem, not them. They are rarely diagnosed.
The issue of mass shootings is not a mental health issue solvable by offering mental health services to individuals (though better mental health service are always needed). It is a societal issue where many people have become desensitized to others, where narcissism is becoming a “norm”, replacing empathy and compassion for, and cooperation with, others. Where those most in the limelight are setting a standard of “I’m right, and anyone who disagrees with me, or doesn’t give me what I want, is wrong and doesn’t deserve ______. ” Fill in the blank – food stamps, a job, health care, social security benefits, the right to live in the country of their choice, or maybe to live at all.
If you do not believe this has become a “norm” take time to read the comments written under many on-line articles or Facebook posts. See how people respond to those they disagree with, or whom they do not share the same values or perspective. (You can also read the articles listed below addressing this societal problem.)
People with personality disorders are often liken to 2 year olds in their emotional development. They, like 2 year olds, should not have access to guns, nuclear weapons, shouldn’t be politicians, shouldn’t be playing with dangerous chemicals, or the rights of other people.
Mass shootings occur because people who are, or at least pass as, mentally healthy can buy weapons designed for mass killings, weapons designed ONLY for killing people, not for hunting deer, not for target shooting, designed to kill as many people as possible.
As long as this new “norm” of narcissism, of “entitlement”, is sanctioned by the role modeling of public figures there will be killings. Making the weapons unavailable for mass shootings is only a first but crucial step to ensure better safety for others. The other steps are complex and require honest reflection how, as a society, we got to this place of narcissistic entitlement. This place of “me first”, others be damn. Of hate, not love.
*Definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder: grandiosity, lack of empathy for others, need for admiration and attention, described by others as arrogant, self-centered, manipulative, demanding. A person with NPD may concentrate on grandiose fantasies (e.g. their success, brilliance), be convinced they deserve special treatment, believe they are superior or special, have difficulty tolerating criticism or defeat. They frequently take advantage of others to reach their own goals, can be charming to achieve to those goals, disregard the feelings of others, need constant attention and often go to extreme behavior to get it.
Borderline Personality Disorder has many of the same characteristics, with the addition of lack of impulse control, often engaging in risky behavior and in self-destructive behaviors. People with BPD usually do not feel a strong sense of importance, but more of being misunderstood. Those with NPD feel others lives revolve around them, those with BPD will become obsessed with and feel their life revolves around another person, becoming intolerant of that person not giving them the attention they need.
Related internet articles:
Me, me, me! America’s ‘Narcissism Epidemic’
Research says young people today are more narcissistic than ever
Is Social Media to Blame For the Rise In Narcissism?
Narcissism: The science behind the rise of a modern ‘epidemic’
6 Signs of Narcissism