Mental health has been a hot topic within the past few weeks due to the mass shooting in Florida. While there are many people concerned about gun control, there seems to be an overwhelming majority of individuals who now see mental illness as the biggest problem in the equation.
Within the Psychology community there is a difference between mental illness and poor mental health. Based on conversations I've had with several psychologists, the biggest factor seems to be the period of time that poor mental health continues.
For example, if you lose a loved one it is expected that you will have a temporary decline in mental health. However, it is pertinent that you seek the help of a therapist or counselor if that poor mental health continues to see if a mental illness has developed.
The biggest fear in the mental health community seems to be the criminalization and discrimination of individuals with diagnosed mental disorders, but to completely disregard the role of mental health in these tragic events is both unreasonable and dangerous.
What Does the Research Say?
"No reliable research has suggested that a majority of perpetrators are primarily influenced by serious mental illness as opposed to, for example, psychological turmoil flowing from other sources", according to a study titled "Mass Shootings and Mental Illness".
Psychological turmoil can be explained as a multitude of environmental factors such as financial hardship, marital issues, and social isolation that causes an individual to reach their breaking point and use mass murder as an outlet. In other words, there is not an issue in treating individuals who have been diagnosed and managing their mental illnesses. Conversely, there is an issue in the timely treatment of individuals who are under mounting pressure and failing to effectively cope.
Being a victim of bullying proved to be a strong correlating factor in individuals who commit mass murders: "[They] had all been bullied or isolated during childhood and subsequently became loners who felt despair over their social alienation". That alientation typically comes as a form of emotional isolation "particularly as a result of infidelity, abuse, or other trust issues", according to GoodTherapy.org.
Social alienation turns into isolation when the individual who has been alienated loses trust and/or relationship with the group or community. They continue to isolate themselves out of fear of future abuse, which leads to them perceiving themselves and alone and misunderstood and damages their self-worth and self-image.
How Is Self-Worth Connected?
Some of the psychological factors called out in "Mass Shootings and Mental Illness" included negative or fragile self-image, problems with self-esteem, narcissism, and a perception of being socially rejected.
Self-fulfilling prophecy causes an individual to create situations as they perceive them. Therefore a person who sees themselves as an unwanted will often unknowingly behave to ensure they are unwanted which will continue to further isolate them. A narcissistic individual cannot participate in the reciprocal nature of a healthy relationship, resulting in isolation and/or shallow interpersonal interactions.
Furthermore, self-esteem and locus of control positively correlate. Hence, the higher an indivudal's self-esteem is the less likely they are to place blame on others for problems in their lives - another common thread in individuals that commit mass murders.
What Can We Do About It?
Many psychologists and psychiatrists are against using mental health to change the trajectory of future mass shootings, citing that suicide is overwhelmingly more commonplace than mass shootings.
However, focusing on self-esteem and self-image from a proactive and non-discriminatory perspective could work to minimize both issues. In most cases, the community and its government representatives have control over the information provided in school. If we have an entire class on physical and sexual health, why not better prepare students with classes in mental health that proactively address these issues?
Starting the discussion at a young age so that students are able to identify healthy and unhealthy coping strategies can be a great start to curtail future mass shootings and suicides. It could also help to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and make students more comfortable in asking for help, thus allowing us to identify and treat students before they reach their boiling point.
This would require an increase in education budgets so that schools are properly supplied with a reasonable student-counselor ratio. Another alternative that may require less reliance on government assistance could be through a program where the school works with outside counselors in the community in exchange for tax write-offs since they would be working pro bono.
Discipline in schools would also need to be focused on the root cause of behavior, and integrate therapy into disciplinary models. Consider that in our current legal system, as flawed as it is, requires psychological care such as anger management in addition to whatever punishment is decided. Schools should follow suit once provided the proper resources.
In conclusion, while the issue of mental health and mass shootings may not be black and white, there are many things we can start to do today. It is easy to place the responsibility in the hands of the government, mental health professionals, or individuals suffering from mental health disorders but it is pertinent that we focus on the things we can control and begin to positively impact our communities now.
Gabriella Payne builds teams and communities through inspiration and strategic confidence development. She works with universities, athletic groups, and corporations to help students and recent graduates transform their mental thought patterns by teaching new, healthier habits. She is also an advocate for healthy relationships and teaches a series called "See It Coming".