The toll of mass murders rings with miserable persistence these days. It’s becoming dully familiar, an ongoing trauma that won’t pause long enough to let us grieve, let alone hope to prevent the next time. According to USA Today we have suffered 248 mass murders since 2006 — including this week's tragedy in Isla Vista near Santa Barbara. Even if you exclude killings during burglaries or robberies, there have been 217 mass murders.
As the poet Stanley Kunitz said, How can the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? Here in Seattle, we remember those who died at Cafe Racer and in the parking lot of Town Hall two years ago today. The killer was a mentally ill man whose family loved him but felt helpless to reach him, a man whose brother described him as “really angry toward everything,” and “so stubborn you can’t talk to him.” A solitary figure who was welcome at Cafe Racer except on a few occasions when he was asked to leave because he was “snapping” at people.
The murders in Isla Vista stir another round of anguished questions. “When a mad man goes on a killing spree...who’s to blame?” asked Time. Slate considered one possible answer: “Did Elliott Rodger’s Therapists Fail?”
“Rodger met with trained mental health professionals, the people we rely on to identify dangerously disturbed individuals, and they apparently failed to perceive the depth of his problems,” writes Slate’s Brian Palmer, noting that the Isla Vista murders happened despite Elliot Rodger’s family’s concerns, and despite a visit on April 30 by law enforcement officers who saw nothing that raised a red flag.
I can’t blame people for looking to the mental-health profession to prevent violence that is senseless, mad. Calls for reforms to the mental-health system have become almost as familiar as the tragedies that inspire them. And all agree that our mental-health system has serious problems, many of them stemming from the avalanche of funding cuts in recent years that makes it harder all the time for people who want help to get it.
But as a therapist, I know how unrealistic it is to imagine that therapy, or psychiatry, or even involuntary confinement can fix what’s broken in this epidemic of violence. As a colleague said, “People don’t blame oncologists for the fact that cancer still kills people. But they expect mental illness to be something altogether simpler than cancer.” Something is killing Americans, 900 and counting since 2006, according to USA Today. Whatever it is, it’s not simple.
(Well, maybe one aspect of the phenomenon is simple to understand if not to solve: Many lives would be saved if we had reasonable gun control in this country to make killing much harder, and much slower, to do.)
No mental-health diagnosis explains why some people go on killing sprees. Schizophrenia seems to gets blamed lately, more often than other disorders — but as Richard A. Friedman pointed out in a recent New York Times op-e the vast majority of people with schizophrenia never commit violence. While it’s true that some individuals with paranoid schizophrenia on rare occasions lash out at others they perceive as threatening, drug and alcohol abuse triggers far more violence than mental illness does.
In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that something in American culture drives the schizophrenics among us to feel particularly unsafe, and on rare occasions to act out violently. Our schizophrenic neighbors, friends and family members may be canaries in our cultural coalmine, highly reactive to stressors the rest of us are better able to tune out.
The Schizophrenia Research Foundation in Chennai, India, has found that the auditory hallucinations — the “voices in the head” — heard by American schizophrenics are much more violent than the ones heard by schizophrenics in India. Researcher T.M. Luhrmann thinks that “local culture may shape the way people with schizophrenia pay attention to the complex auditory phenomena generated by the disorder and so shift what the voices say and how they say it.”
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