Seuing-Hui Cho. 23. Jared Laughner. 24. James Holmes. 24. Jacob Tyler Roberts. 22.
All four men, in their early 20’s, were involved in mass shootings that, combined, have killed dozens and crippled communities. While you wonder how some can be deranged enough to (allegedly) fire a gun into an open crowd, you also wonder how this could have been prevented and whether anyone saw signs beforehand of planned incidents like the Virginia Tech, Tuscon, Aurora, and Happy Valley shootings.
These four shooters all have a history of mental illness. These illnesses include schizophrenia, a disease that manifests around age 20, social anxiety, depression, and more. Many people argue that stricter gun control laws would help prevent these issues, but stricter gun control would only meet the solution halfway. On the other end of the spectrum, there needs to be more pro-activity in recognizing mental health illnesses and getting help quickly and early for those suffering from it.
Depression and social anxiety are two mental illness that are often the most expressed and easy to recognize. Although those who are depressed don’t always express it clearly, there are signs that friends and family members can look out for if they believe someone they know is depressed. Symptoms include attention deficit, fatigue and decreased energy, insomnia, irritability, feelings pessimism or emptiness, changes in appetite, constant headaches or physical pain, difficulty maintaining relationships, and thoughts of suicide. More symptoms stand out than others, but if you believe someone is depressed it’s better to be safe than sorry about confronting it.
Ask the person if they are having trouble with work, school, friends, spouses, money, or anything like that. If they complain they’re having headaches or other body pains often, getting a check up by a physician can determine whether or not the cause is depression. There are effective ways to treat depression, including SSRIs, individual and group talk therapy, and other psychotherapies. The worst thing about depression, particularly suicide, is that it is not taken seriously as a mental illness. If someone you know ever mentions committing suicide, even if it’s in a humorous manner, pull them aside and ask them if they’ve had thoughts of killing themselves. If they say No, make them insist and swear that they’re telling the truth, and if they Yes then stay with them and go with them to a counselor or psychiatrist. By being more pro-active about recognizing symptoms of depression, people can not only save lives of those who are depressed but also the lives of those they could hurt.
Social anxiety isn’t just being social awkward. It is a fear of social situations and interactions. An estimated 19 million Americans are living with social anxiety. Social anxiety can be triggered by anything involving people, from eating at a restaurant to using public restrooms. Even future social situations that haven’t even happened yet can give someone social anxiety. It often starts in the adolescent years, but can be seen in childhood. In the cases of violent people who have social anxiety, they normally tailored anxiety from a nervousness of people to a hatred of people. Rather than fearing social interaction, they loathed it and threatened or harmed those who forced social interaction upon them.
Some mild forms of social anxiety can include only one situation involving people, such as public speaking. However, more severe forms of social anxiety can interfere with relationships, work, and daily routines. People with social anxiety also have false and negative perceptions of people or events. Social anxiety is rarely diagnosed on its own. Those who suffer social anxiety often suffer from depression, OCD, and/or panic disorders. Symptoms of those mental illnesses lead to doctors to recognizing and diagnosing social anxiety. Signs of social anxiety include fear of talking or interacting with people, isolation, intense anxiety in social situations, severe mood swings, panic attacks, and confusion. Social anxiety can also manifest into physical symptoms which include muscle tension, upset stomach, sweating and blushing, shaking, increase heart rate and “pounding” heart sensation, and sometimes yelling or crying.
Social anxiety can be cause by biological, psychological, or environmental factors. Disrupted levels of serotonin in the brain can cause social anxiety and depression. There is also evidence that shows biological conditions like this tend to run in the family, so family history is a big factor to consider when diagnosing social anxiety. An embarrassing or humiliating past experience may leave psychological scarring and cause social anxiety in that manner. Environmental factors can influence social anxiety by observing other people and being over-sheltered or overprotected by parents during childhood. Treatments for social anxiety include medication, such an anti-depressants or beta blockers, and CBT, cognitive behavior therapy, which teaches people how to react to situations that trigger anxiety.
The third, and often most severe, illness often seen in perpetrators of violent acts is schizophrenia. Jared Laughner, the Tuscon shooter, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is often misunderstood and therefore perceived wrongly. Schizophrenia is a form of psychosis, where the person suffering from it cannot tell what is real and what is a product of their mind. To them, the world is a jumble of confusing thoughts, images and sounds. About 2.2 millions Americans live with schizophrenia, and the disease affects about 1% of the world’s population. The causes of schizophrenia are not well understood, but researchers believe it is caused by imbalance in brain chemistry, particularly sensitivity to a neurotransmitter called dopamine. There are different types of schizophrenia that each affect people differently and have their own severity. The most often seen and heard about is paranoid schizophrenia. People with this type are preoccupied with false beliefs or delusions about certain people or things, or even themselves. Their thinking, speech and emotions, however, remain fairly normal.
Schizophrenia is most commonly, but not always, a sudden onset disease. If often onset around age 19-22, but can occur earlier or later. Schizophrenia in children is extraordinarily rare, but has been diagnosed in children as young as 6. People with schizophrenia exhibit a number of rapid onset symptoms, including sudden changes in personality, ability to perform routine activities, trouble paying attention, and radical changes in behavior. Other more subtle symptoms of schizophrenia include moodiness, loss of pleasure in certain activities or loss of interest in life, poor hygiene habits, and lack of motivation.
One of the most common and most observed, yet least acted on, symptoms of schizophrenia is withdrawal from friends, family, and social activities. In the case of Jared Laughner, and many other people suffering from schizophrenia, he very quickly and inexplicably became isolated from friends and family, not talking to them or interacting with them for weeks or months at a time. If you notice a friend or family member exhibit this sort of isolation or any of the other symptoms of schizophrenia for a period longer than 6 consecutive months, get in contact with them as soon as possible. If they refuse to answer calls, emails, or knocks at the door, then you can contact your local law enforcement and let them know about the situation. The sooner schizophrenia is diagnosed, the sooner the sufferer can receive treatment.
Schizophrenic people are usually not violent, but there occasional violent patients. They are often prone to violence not only towards others but towards themselves. Suicide is the number one cause of premature death in schizophrenics. By being aware of the symptoms of schizophrenia, people can help recognize those suffering from schizophrenia and get them the help they need before something worse happens.
While not every shooting can be prevented, be aware of symptoms of mental disease can truly help save lives, whether it’s preventing a mass shooting or stopping a suicide. If you are ever unsure if someone is suffering from a mental illness, it never hurts to try and talk to them. Talking to them might encourage them to talk to others and seek help. Mental illness, unfortunately, is overlooked by physical disease. Maybe it’s because physical disease are more tangible and people empathize with those patients, maybe it’s because there is less hope for those who suffer from mental illness. Regardless, because of the lack of national awareness, it’s up to individuals to look out for each other. You never know when mental illness could set in and it’s difficult to recognize, but if you see signs of illness and fail to act before a friend or family members injures someone else or themselves, it could leave you asking “Why didn’t I do something before this happened?”
UPDATE: Now we add the Newtown shooter. Reports are conflicting his age but he is somewhere between 20-24 years old. This is not coincidence. People need to wake up and realize the threat that those suffering from mental health have to the community. Gun control isn’t the only issue at hand. We need to raise national awareness about the horrors of mental illness. We need to make people more aware of recognizing the signs and being more pro-active about getting help for their friends and family. Obviously, the government isn’t going to do anything because they have their heads up their asses, so it’s up to us as members of our communities to look out for one another. Be aware. Speak up. Offer assistance. Like I said, by recognizing helping out someone who may be suffering, you could potentially be saving the lives of dozens.