Before it Happens Again: Mass Shootings, Mental Health & Problem-Solving: Part 1

Posted by Cindy Finch, LCSW in Awareness, DBT Skills, Media, News

During a recent check-in and de-briefing with my college students about the most recent violence in Thousand Oaks, one Master’s level student glibly remarked, “It’s just going to happen again,” he said. “I’m not even surprised by it anymore, it’s sad to say but I think it’s just trending.” While I didn’t like his words, I knew he was right…in all the wrong, worst ways.

As a clinician and professor, I had to accept that the generation behind me has, quite literally, grown up thinking massacres are a part of life. While everything in me fights this offensive and terrible reality, it is true. From GMAC (1990) to Columbine (1999) to Borderline Bar (2018), there have been 98 mass shootings where three or more people have been murdered, hundreds injured and thousands traumatized during the life-span of this Millennial generation. They have grown up on gore.

And while I hate this fact with every fiber of my being, it is true. As a DBT therapist, there are certain things we can do to address this terrible state of affairs as a country and as individuals.

DBT teaches that there are four ways to address any problem:

  • Solve the Problem
  • Feel Better About the Problem
  • Accept the Problem
  • Stay Miserable

Solve the Problem

We could solve it: No guns for anyone anymore, or guns for everyone all the time so we can protect ourselves. But since neither of these extremes is going to happen in the US, let’s look at some other options.

Stay Miserable

When we post political views about gun laws on social media, talk about how awful it is and reiterate what we already know (we all abhor the mass killings but don’t know where to start); when we blame politicians, mental illness and legislation for mass shootings, for all intents and purposes, we stay miserable about this horrendous problem. Not much gets done as we roll this reality around on social media and news channels.

Feel Better About It

This one is hard to see when it’s happening, but let me assure you it is. Every time you watch the fallout after another bloodbath on the news and not in person, we all, (let’s be honest), feel relieved this was “them” and not “us.” Don’t get me wrong, we still feel quite badly for “them”, we continue to watch news stories about the incidents and even talk about it at Einstein’s or Starbucks, but really, until “they” becomes “us” we will continue to feel thankful it wasn’t us and not become change-focused. In short, we won’t take the necessary steps to stop this sort of unconscionable thing from “trending.”

Radical Acceptance

To Radically Accept the state of our nation is to say, “It is what it is, now let’s change it.” Until we can accept, from a radical position, that our nation has now raised a generation of young adults on this sort of violence, we won’t be able to make meaningful changes. Why? Because if we do not accept that it is actually true, we will stay stuck in blaming others (politicians, the NRA, mental illness, legislation) and avoid problem solving.

DBT teaches that Radical Acceptance can help us. The beauty of radical acceptance is that it opens the door for change. Once we acknowledge that the problem truly is what it is, and it’s as bad as it is, we can stop living like it’s a one-off and treat it properly: Violence – mass, bloody, senseless, random violence is not only trending, it’s our new reality.

If we were to accept that this is now our “normal” (not even a new normal), what might we do to change things? Here are some ideas.

Stop blaming mental illness as the reason vicious criminals kill groups of innocent people. While severe mental illness is likely a key factor in the decompensation of a person to the point they walk into a public setting and open fire on a crowd, it is not the sole factor.

While criminals who have killed groups of others are mentally unstable, they are not the typical mental health patient.  They’re not even the extremely rare patients. We tend to think that the anti-social are the ones who are terrorizing public settings. But people with psychopathic and sociopathic traits represent only a tiny fraction of mental health patients. Furthermore, it’s not typically the psychopaths who are doing the mass killings. According to a NY Times Article from 2016 called Investigating the Minds of Mass Killers:

“…the sort of young, troubled males who seem to psychiatrists most likely to open fire in a school — identified because they have made credible threats — often don’t fit any diagnosis, experts say. They might have elements of paranoia, deep resentment or narcissism that are noticeable but don’t add up to a specific disorder, according to strict criteria. And there’s no good evidence that mental health treatment would have made a meaningful difference.”

There appears to be a whole new breed of criminal present in these atrocities: Those who want to wreak havoc, torture others and take lives, are mostly NOT on anyone’s radar and aren’t afraid to die during their own crime. So, even though the media may say things like, “The shooter was a Veteran and may have had PTSD,” I can assure you that almost NO ONE with PTSD alone is going to become a mass shooter. The constellation of PTSD symptoms typically cause people to be highly anxious and very avoidant of triggering situations. Folks with PTSD are running away from scary situations not running towards them.

Prevention

One of the most common characteristics of all of the shooters is that they had expert training with guns. Not long ago, a client of mine sat down in session and shared with me that he thought we should not have stricter gun laws but stricter ammunition laws. We were discussing the most recent shootings in Thousand Oaks and, and as a college student who was moved by the loss of so many college students, he thought that we should heavily legislate what type of ammunition people have access to. While I tend to agree, I also know most gun owners are safety trained and responsible handlers of their firearm while those who have criminal intent will find a way to get what they want no matter how strict the gun and ammo laws are. So instead, let’s look at prevention.

But How?

There is a mental health crisis in our country. Suicide rates are on the rise and for every completed suicide there are 25 people who attempt but don’t complete. These statistics give me a cold chill. And while mass shooters don’t seem to fit any one type of diagnosis, it is clear that they are unstable, dangerous and high risk individuals. But this instability didn’t start the moment they picked up a gun.

Columbine shooter, Dylan Klebold’s mom, Sue, in her now famous Ted Talk shared that her son actually struggled mostly with self-harm (cutting) and suicidal thoughts years before he became a mass shooter – when he was a young teen. Early on, his primary desire was to die, not to kill. But through a complex web of trauma, friendship and access to firearms he became one of our country’s most infamous young perpetrators of suicide-murders. So, there was a progression of his mental illness. Can we stop future progressions like Dylan’s?

In Part Two of “Before it Happens Again: Mass Shootings, mental health and prevention” I will discuss several conventional and unconventional solutions for readers to consider as we continue to look at this nationwide problem through the lens of DBT.

Cindy Finch, LCSW

Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Family Services Specialist

DBT Center of Orange County

Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University

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