Once again, the nation is shocked dealing with the absurdity of a mass shooting rampage in Aurora, Colorado. The senseless nature of the act is mind boggling. At some level, we have become disabled by the shear magnitude of such violence. How can such a bright, capable graduate student defy all typical expectations associated with someone like him to become the perpetrator of the worst mass shoot in our history?
On one of the recent news programs, a former FBI profiler questioned whether an insanity plea could be argued in defense of the shooter because he was so rational and intentional in executing his plan for mass destruction and chaos. As I sat there listening to the commentary, I was struck with the reality that reason sometimes has nothing to do with sanity.
For those of us involved in the mental health field for many years, the profile of this young man is not unusual. The fact of the matter is that most folks who have any sort of chronic mental illness often begin to display it as they approach adulthood. Sullen, withdrawn behavior that may have been excused as a phase of adolescents can indeed be an indicator of mental illness and often comes as a surprise to those closest to the individual. I don’t know the details surrounding the shooter’s life to analyze his mental health state, but it certainly seems to me that it is a factor in understanding how such an otherwise nondescript graduate student could achieve such infamy.
I do not offer these observations in any way to excuse the violence or to suggest leniency, but rather to raise the question that seems to be missing in the discussion. What is the mental state of this young man? How does it influence our understanding of this tragedy? How can we prevent a recurrence?
As we move from shock to understanding and hopefully resolve to avoid repetition of this kind of situation, I suggest that we adopt a greater vigilance when it comes to the mental health of our young people. There is no need to become paranoid, but rather attentive to be a true resource that supports the well-being of our youth. A mental health diagnosis continues to bring with it tremendous stigma. Incredibly, in some sectors, it is almost taboo to consider a mental health disorder. Like a physical illness, mental health requires attention to be preventative and offer successful treatment.
Lost in the debate is perhaps the most reasonable solution. Screening for mental illness should be as routine as an annual physical, not by way of exception. Physicians, educators, families need to recognize the signs of a mental health disorder and feel free to seek treatment. Resources needed for treatment are required and may just be the best investment in riding the nation of this kind of heartbreak.