Until a couple of days ago, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about this week. However, the tragic gun deaths of nine students, and wounding of nine others, at an Oregon college is a topic that deserves attention. Predictably, this event has reignited political debates regarding issues such as gun control and allowing students to carry firearms on campus. While I think these are important discussions, and I support gun control legislation, I’m not convinced that either gun control or further proliferation of firearms will resolve the problem of mass shootings. I say this because on many levels these events are more than simply legal problems and failure of legislation.
I recognize that law has its limits. We cannot seek to resolve our social problems solely through criminalization and regulation. I believe we need to take a closer look at what social forces are driving these events and consider how we can create change that stops the creation of people who are driven to commit mass murder.
When one looks back that the majority of mass shootings in our nation we see a recurring profile of the individuals who commit these violent acts. The group is exclusively male, most often white, alienated, unemployed or underemployed, and exhibiting symptoms of untreated mental illness. These are not professional criminals, gang members, or individuals with histories of long-term involvement in radical organizations, although they may take up a cause to justify their actions.
I would like to focus upon the issues of alienation and untreated mental illness because I feel that these two areas are ignored in most discussions. Human beings have a strong drive for connection. We are not solitary creatures. In fact, social isolation has been compared to smoking and obesity in terms of the magnitude of its impact upon our health. Yet we live in a society where the social fabric is decaying, and with it, opportunities to find social connection. More and more of our professional and personal lives have moved into the digital realm. I was recently talking with some young people about job hunting and I was encouraging them to go to the employer and talk with someone in person whenever possible as part of their job hunting strategy. I was surprised when they told me that this was no longer possible with most employers and that for grocery stores and other retail entities all job seekers are directed to the Internet. As I wrote in an earlier posting, social institutions of all sorts are declining in membership. I would argue that even where membership is steady, the social life of many institutions has declined tremendously in the past two decades. I remember years ago when the holidays of Chanukkah and Sukkot in my local Jewish community meant multiple invitations to parties and dinners. In recent years such invitations have become increasingly rare to the degree that I am surprised when one is extended.
Alienation creates worse health outcomes, not just physically, but also for mental health. We are not prepared to respond to the increased mental health needs arising from increased alienation. The United States’ mental health infrastructure is completely inadequate and is getting worse by the day. We do not have the providers and we haven’t funded the research needed to deliver effective evidence based treatments. Even for those who have the financial resources to pay for care, it’s often simply not available or the quality of care is poor due to inadequate training of the provider.
Untreated mental illness often brings people into the criminal justice system. I remember when I was doing contract nursing and I was sent to work in a local prison. I was stunned at how a majority of the inmates’ medical records showed the same profile of untreated mental illness; a history of childhood abuse or neglect; low IQ; and untreated addiction. Is it any wonder that the largest provider of mental health services in the State of Florida is the Department of Corrections? However, this also says that, as a society, we’re not committed to the prevention of crime and destroyed lives, only to reacting to the damage they cause.
One last story and I’ll close. When I was a law student I worked on a clemency petition for a young woman who, at age 13, was sent to adult prison in Florida for 9 years following the home invasion robbery of her Grandparents’ house. This child, and she was a child until the state of Florida stripped her of that status, had been evaluated by two mental health experts a few weeks earlier following a violent outburst. The mental health experts both recommended immediate inpatient treatment for her. Nothing was done, her behavior continued to escalate, and the State of Florida decided that rather than mental health treatment she was a criminal and made her the youngest person in the Florida adult prison system. It should be noted that her escalating violence was associated with her mother’s abandonment of her. During her 9-year prison sentence, neither her mother nor her grandparents ever visited her once. The recommended mental health treatment was never provided to her. I argued her clemency petition to then Governor Jeb Bush, who denied it. I guess he just figured that stuff like this happens.
In closing, I don’t believe that we’re helpless in the face of this problem. As individuals, we can work to decrease alienation in our communities by simply going out into the world. I know some will disagree with me, but a digital connection is not the same as being in the presence of a live person. We can lobby for mental health research and treatment funding, not simply because of this issue, but because it creates justice in the world. If we can do these things, our lives will all improve.