School Shootings And The Factors Of Mental Illness – Part One

photo of a group of male high school students

by Richard Cameron


With the most recent school shooting by Nikolas Cruz at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a number of solutions are being considered – with added measures of gun control in the forefront.

Whether, and to what extent additional gun control legislation will in any way address the problem, is debatable – and of course, as you have noticed, is being debated.  But in this first of a series of  reports we will focus on one of the other common denominators in the shootings.  Those are the identifiable components that are inherently part of the social and psychological makeup of the statistically small number of individuals that commit these shootings.

It might be premature to arrive at a firm assessment of Nikolas Cruz, especially given the fact that the results of a psychological analysis will not be publicly available for a period of time, but the research findings that exist, illustrate that it is not a simple matter to categorize the shooters according to hard definitions of mental conditions.

The record also demonstrates that the behavior exhibited by these individuals before the event, were not taken seriously. As part of our follow up, we will examine how that information can be applied in a practical manner, to the problem of intervening with young men at risk.

Among the recognized premier subject matter experts in the mental health factors attributable to school shootings is Peter Langman, PhD.  His practice in Allentown, Pennsylvania, deals with a variety of conditions including anger management, obsessive / compulsive disorders, depression, trauma and PTSD.  Of Langman, the APA (American Psychological Association), on their web page Monitor, says:

When the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or local police departments want insights on school shooters, they call psychologist Peter Langman, PhD. For over a decade, Langman has conducted research seeking to understand the psychological states and life circumstances of these criminals in an effort to identify the warning signs of impending violence.

Langman, in his research – the summary of which you can review in more detail here, says that the profile of the school shooter has multiple basic categories. Some are psychopaths, others are psychotic according to one diagnosis or another and a third category is a young person who has been traumatized by his interactions with other students, acquaintances and possibly family relationships.

Regarding the first two categories, an important distinction should be made between psychopathy and psychosis.  A psychopath, is a person with a personality disorder displaying lack of impulse control, indifference to others, narcissism, lying, lack of ethics and lack of empathy towards others. Psychosis, on the other hand, broadly includes various degrees of detachment from reality, such as hallucinations.

This category (Psychosis), includes the diagnosis of schizophrenia – a condition that affected Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, killed 6 others and wounded several more in Tucson, Arizona.  A person with psychotic symptoms, may not necessarily exhibit defective moral or ethical behavior. Their episodes are likely related to the flare ups of the disorder itself.  In fact, Loughner, who was 23 years old at the time of the shooting, was suffering from a recent onset of paranoid schizophrenia.  Loughner’s age at the time of the event, draws into question, the perceived benefit of raising the age of firearm purchases to 21. 

Also in the category of psychotic shooters is Seung Hui Cho, who killed 32 and wounded 17 others in the Virginia Tech campus assault in 2007.  Cho displayed behavior that concerned school faculty, fellow students and dorm mates and was admitted to a hospital psych ward and ordered to attend outpatient counseling. Virtually nothing in the way of follow through was conducted.  

video still of Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's video project "Hitmen For Hire"

Eric Harris, in contrast – one of the two shooters in the Columbine High School attack is a textbook case of the psychopathic school shooter.

Much about his state of mind, was learned from writings that were discovered by investigators, including fantasies about committing felony violence including rape and mayhem.

There were numerous predictors, including a disturbing video (still image right)  Harris and Klebold produced in December 1998, titled “Hitmen For Hire”, featuring violent statements and staged scenes of the killing of students in the hallway of their school.

The third main behavior profile is that of the traumatized school shooter – who may or may not have experienced abuse in the home or from a parent, but will have experienced stress, anxiety, alienation – all facets of the “bullying” syndrome.

Langman’s conclusions from his review of the data suggests that the psychopathic and psychotics statistically come from middle class, intact families – whereas traumatized shooters often arise from the lower economic strata and have parents with violent tendencies, practice dysfunctional parenting and may have even been incarcerated.

He cautions that even with these circumstances and diagnosis, it is not possible to conclude that a violent event is inevitable. That is supported by the fact that according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (Montgomery County), “only 4 percent of the violence—not just gun violence, but any kind—in the United States is attributable to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression (the three most-cited mental illnesses in conjunction with violence).”

One thing Dr. Langman is careful to emphasize is that it would be a mistake to lift any one potential contributing factor out of the list and try to build a predictive model from it. There are no “aha” moments in the analysis.

Even so, there are  valuable resources that can be referenced by educators, school counselors and others who, as part of their professional responsibilities, will come in contact with troubled students. Those stakeholders in education will need to assess the red flag signs that may be displaying in these individuals and incorporate them into their overall blueprint for conducting preventative interventions.

We’ll cover them in greater detail in the next segment of this series, but they are the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines authored by Dr. Dewey Cornell at the University of Virginia and a complimentary piece of research developed in Germany by the Network against School Shootings – called the Berlin Leaking Projekt.

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One Thought to “School Shootings And The Factors Of Mental Illness – Part One”

  1. As per the quote, ““only 4 percent of the violence—not just gun violence, but any kind—in the United States is attributable to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression (the three most-cited mental illnesses in conjunction with violence),” I think it is importqnt to add that the vast majority of that 4% of violence was directed at the self – self-harm and suicide – not against others.

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