In the wake of tragedy comes opportunity. The gunman who killed ten people at Umpqua Community College in Oregon was the latest in the seemingly endless run of mass shootings. Each one of these alarmingly common occurrences provides another chance to logically evaluate the reasoning behind them, an absolutely vital step in determining the appropriate actions to take after twenty years of watching the problem worsen.
One of the most popular reactions in America to mass killings is to demand greater gun control. Any topic that becomes political in the modern climate evokes polar viewpoints hyperbolized by the media. If we are to seriously assess the mass shooting problem, though, the political undertones need to be stripped away.
Studying the issue on a more humanistic level, this is a people problem. At the heart of this debate is that people are deciding that it’s OK to kill other people in schools and other heavily attended public places. The theme behind the firearm regulation argument is certainly worth exploring; it absolutely makes sense to find a way to keep guns away from people willing to commit heinous acts of violence. However, this is not a simple matter of the presence or absence of guns. Given that people are far more complex than the weapons they use, it is imperative that we acknowledge that this is a multi-faceted problem.
Societally, we have developed a bad habit of black and white thinking, which limits our collective ability to develop a well-rounded understanding of various issues. Take mental illness, for example. 63% in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll said that they think mass shootings are more likely due to the difficulty in identifying and treating people with mental health problems. Reasonably, one could assume that no sane individual would enter a public forum with the intent to harm and that if a previously unstable individual could regain his/her soundness of mind, tragedy could be potentially avoided. It is in pulling that narrative thread that we then engage the most complicated question of the subject matter: what is mental health?
The Mayo Clinic staff begins an article on their website designed to answer the above question with the statement, “Understanding what's considered normal mental health can be tricky.” Search the term “mental illness” and you may notice the trend to describe it as a disease in a rather arbitrary effort to separate the sick from the well. Hence, we are generally categorized as either mentally stable or mentally unstable. A mental illness is defined as a wide range of conditions that affect mood, thinking, and behavior. Their common traits include sadness, loss of interest, fear, doubt, worry, mood swings, obsession, impulsiveness, and misinterpretation of reality. Tricky indeed; if they read as familiar symptoms, it would be because nearly everyone deals with them to varying degrees at some point. So, do we not all vacillate somewhere between mental stability and instability?
Each of us should be concerned with our mental health and we should be encouraged to explore various ways to keep ourselves mentally well, as there is a fine line between stability and instability. Unfortunately, we live in a world that professes symptoms to mean disorders and disease. Those who are diagnosed with a mental illness become stigmatized, simultaneously discouraging others who may exhibit consistent signs of emotional turmoil to seek help. One in four adults (nearly 62 million Americans over the age of 20) and one in five children (19 million kids) will go through a significant mental health issue that has a pronounced affect on their daily lives in any given year. 60% never ask for support either through apprehension, denial, neglect, etc.
Mental health issues are not well understood; the manner in which they’re dealt with even less so. As is the case with most diagnosed health conditions, medication is the popular treatment route suggested for the so-termed mentally ill. The mechanism of action that dictates the efficacy of such medications is interference with brain and body chemistry. There are 75 trillion cells on average in the human body, each of which perform 200,000 chemical reactions every split second. Disrupting the normal processes that control our body chemistry is a dangerous, controversial method that addresses nothing but the symptoms and takes no account of their cause or context. Consider that the human body is still developing its normal chemistry during the teenage years and that the last two decades have seen a sharp rise in the prescription of anti-psychotic drugs to teenagers and young adults.
Dr. Peter R. Breggin, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and former full-time consultant at the National Institute of Mental Health, insists that there has been overwhelming scientific evidence for decades correlating psychiatrically prescribed drugs with violence. He has testified to Congress that research demonstrates a causal relationship between antidepressant drugs and the production of suicide, violence, mania, and other behavioral abnormalities. Accounts like Breggin’s help in understanding the results of alarming statistical analyses like the one in 2012 which revealed that the common link between over 80% of the mass shootings was a perpetrator on anti-psychotic drugs. The four most commonly prescribed psychotropic drugs all share side effects that include difficulty concentrating, mood or behavioral changes, feeling like you cannot control your actions, suicidal tendencies, confusion of identity, paranoia, sleeplessness, aggressiveness, and sudden loss of consciousness. Such are the potential dangers of interrupting brain chemistry.
Mental well-being, one of the pillars of overall health, is an intricate thing and its integrity can be challenged or broken by environmental, social, emotional, spiritual, and biological causes. Our food crops are sprayed with weed and bug-killing chemicals and the animals that keep our meat supplies replenished are pumped with synthetic hormones, resulting in nutritional deficiencies and internal systemic chaos. Traumas, both emotional and physical, are extremely common especially during youth, each creating functional discord in different ways. Physical traumas deplete structural integrity and weaken our central nervous system’s ability to regulate basic processes, including the limbic system that controls our emotions and motivations, while emotional trauma often creates destructive psychological patterns.
None of the above areas of discussion can be left out of our exploration into the reason why people are choosing to commit mass murder. It may be easier to blame the instrument instead of the person wielding it or to blame altered brain chemistry for terrible actions; it may be easier to view the issue as a mental illness recognition problem that does not apply to you. Meanwhile, mass shootings have spiraled out of control. It is not the result of one thing, but many. Attempting to fully understand the underlying problem will not be easy, but the time has arrived to do the difficult work. We must accept that sometimes the answer is not black or white, but somewhere in between.
Sources: The Journal of Ethical Human Sciences and Services, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, The Mayo Clinic website
Dr. Chad McIntyre owns and operates the Triad Upper Cervical Clinic in Kernersville. Though his practice specializes in Upper Cervical Care, emphasis is also placed on nutrition, physical activity, and stress management. With his pre-doctoral education centered on the field of Psychology, Dr. McIntyre takes a particular interest in mental health.