There seems to be an abundance of information in the media on the causes and solutions to mass shootings in our communities. One recurrent debate is whether the acts of the mass murderer should be considered a mental health problem, a gun control problem, or both. However, this argument will be forever ongoing and likely never resolved.
Silver, Simmons, and Craun (2018) composed a study on the pre-attack behaviors of an active shooter. Their research revealed that 94 % (n=63) of active shooters in the U.S. were male, 63% white, and 86 % did not have prior convictions. The dominant age group of active shooters was ages 40-49 at 29%, ages 18-29 at 25%, followed by ages 12-17 and ages 50-59, both at 13%. Only 16% (n=63) had a known diagnosed mental health disorder. These disorders include mood, developmental, anxiety, psychotic, and personality disorders.
Before you read too much into the labels of these disorders, it is important to know that most severe disorders are symptoms of underlying causes. Many of the mental health symptoms of active shooters fit into more than one diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®) category. Although there can be genetic factors involved in mental health diagnoses, babies are not typically born with a disorder. Genes need the right environment to be activated.
If we take the time to study the active shooter’s environment carefully, we will discover the sources related to the symptoms of a developmental trauma disorder (DTD). DTD is a disorder that encompasses most of the current disorders listed in the above profile. However, the proposal of DTD was rejected by the medical personnel that oversees the categorizing of DSM disorders (Van der Kolk, 1994).
Developmental trauma disorder comes in many different configurations. Trauma comes from acts of war performed or witnessed by military personnel and bystanders. Trauma can be a result of sexual abuse, rape, incest, physical abuse, verbal abuse, horrific natural events, and manmade events (9/11). Trauma comes in an abundant of forms beyond the imagination, and on a spectrum of severity. Trauma is also highly correlated with mental health disorders (Van der Kolk, 1994). The most common disorders are posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, substance use disorder, andall the disorders that active shooters are labeled within Silver, Simmons, and Craun (2018) study.
However, one developmental trauma disorder commonly overlooked as to its severity is the effects of emotional neglect. As human beings, we are tribal people and need to experience a sense of belonging. Emotionally neglected children have difficulty developing social skills necessary to adapt to their social environment. Traumatized individuals live in the past as if their traumatic events are still occurring. These individuals can be triggered easily by sights, smells, sounds, and situations that keep the sympathetic nervous system on high arousal (fight or flight). When real or perceived situations become too overwhelming, the dorsal vagal parasympathetic nervous system (freeze) takes over. When we freeze, our somatic system shuts down, and our symptoms present physiologically and psychologically as major depression. (Porges, 2011). Fight, flight, and freeze defenses were originally set in place during traumatic experiences as a survival mechanism. If you are a survivor of trauma or are currently experiencing abuse, you most likely know what it is like when your physiological system quickly goes into protective mode.
Fight or flight behaviors (anxiety and anger) combined with poorly developed social skills, set individuals up for social rejection, a lack of belonging, and a painful sense of loneliness. Social rejection and loneliness are against our tribal instincts and are very painful emotions that everyone has experienced at one time. When a traumatized individual’s worldview is not culturally acceptable, leading to rejection and a sense of abandonment, desperate measures may be taken to feel some kind of connection, even if it means harming others.
Similarities between many behaviors of individuals with severe mental health diagnosis (including substance use disorders) are that they externalize their problems. These individuals have difficulty with insight into how they construct their worldview and how they choose their behaviors (poor social development). They also have difficulty with perspective taking, that is, seeing issues from other people’s perspective (for example, the painful ripple effect of killing people). Without help from specially trained mental health providers, many people are never able to develop insight into how they construct their beliefs and emotions. They have difficulty understanding that their problems are not just a result of other’s behaviors and actions (Barrett, 2017). Lacking necessary intrapsychic insight prevents people from living in peace, in the present moment, while limiting their ability to experience joy, love, and other human connecting emotions.
We may feel like our hands are tied when it comes to preventing tragic shootings of any kind. Mass shootings are the new norm in our culture, adding another dimension of fear and grief to our lives. What we can do about it? We can begin by practicing perspective taking. When you see someone that is a social outcast, rather than judging them and thinking that they should “just snap out of it” we can take a nonjudgmental approach to their bidding (reaching out for connectedness). We can try to imagine what it is like for them to have lived in a traumatic environment. Rather than shun them, we can be respectful with compassion and make them feel like they are a part of the tribe, without judgment. While we must maintain appropriate boundaries for our own protection, we can teach ourselves and our children manners, inclusion, and respect for fellow human beings.
The action of compassion starts with being kind to ourselves. We have the ability to set an example for our children by how we emphasize our self-worth. Rather than expressing our worth as “I am to fat, not good enough, who would want me…” we can choose to be a role model for our children by practicing gratefulness and self-compassion. One cannot be grateful and hateful at the same time. We can teach our children not to be cruel to socially challenged peers and that perspective taking, without judgment, is a powerful compassion building skill. Furthermore, most of us, myself included, can make an improved effort to perform random acts of kindness. We can take a respectful approach to suffering humankind in hopes to becoming part of preventing the continuing epidemic of mass shootings.
Catherine G. Cleveland is a mental health counselor and owner of Cleveland Emotional Health. Catherine specializes in the treatment of trauma and chronic pain. For more information go to: clevelandemotionalhealth.com
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®).American Psychiatric Pub.
- Barrett, L. F. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.
- Silver, J., Simons, A., & Craun, S. (2018). A Study of the Pre-attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013.Federal Bureau of Investigation.
- Van der Kolk, B. A. (1994). The body keeps the score: Memory and the evolving psychobiology of posttraumatic stress. Harvard review of psychiatry, 1(5), 253-265.