Are the perpetrators of school shootings ‘lost causes?’

As a human being, I experience the deep, gnawing pain, shattered heart, and emotional trauma related with school shootings. Indeed, I will likely associate the names Columbine, Virginia Tech, and, as of yesterday, Sandy Hook, with their tragic massacres for the rest of my life. I find these incidents cruel and inhumane; staggering and confusing; painful and unforgivable.

And, yet, I am going into a profession that focuses on the complexity of human behavior, a field that strives to foster psychological well-being for those suffering from distress, whatever that may be. And, for this reason, politics aside, I believe we are facing an extreme crisis. People can debate tirelessly about gun control or proactive security measures. They can talk about prison sentences and the inadequacy of the legal system. They will point fingers at violent media, at the saturation and glorification of death and brutality on television and in video games. I am going to argue from a different approach, and take a stab at blaming my own home base: the mental health sector.

In the aftermath of school shootings, people respond with unquenchable curiosity and seemingly desperate need for unanswerable questions. What provoked him? Could this have been prevented? And most importantly, how could someone do that?

There are the typical predictors: being male, history of violence, sharing premeditated plans with others, emotional detachment, arrogance. It is likely that most of these perpetrators suffered from personality disorders among other mental illnesses. Hindsight biasthe phenomenon behind wondering “how could I have not known?” in cases of tragedies is common. For instance, when reading the infamous personality profiles of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two gunmen behind the Columbine shooting, it almost seems unfathomable that people did not take their ideations seriously.

These perpetrators need just as much help as anyone else. In fact, I will argue that they need help the most. Yet, due to the nature of their backgrounds and personality, most will not receive the adequate help they need. For good reason, we empathize with victims. Their traumatic stories move us; we seek to normalize their feelings and convince them that they are not bad people. And for the same reason, we struggle with empathizing with perpetrators. Rapists and murderers:  They deserve to die. They deserve to burn in hell. They deserve to rot in jail.

And, yet, what if we could intervene BEFORE these acts of violence? What if we could provide these individuals with the same sense of unwavering support and unconditional regard that we can give victims BEFORE these tragedies occur.

What if the perpetrators are just victims of their own abnormal distortions?

I recognize that there is not a simple black-and-white remedy, and I believe that anyone who claims to know how to “solve this problem” undermines the vast complexity of human behavior. This has nothing to do with tightening legal consequences or approving new restrictions. This has to do with simply talking to disturbed individuals and ending the societal stigma and denial associated with psychiatric illness.

How can we look for ways to reduce the rage and social isolation experienced by so many of these perpetrators? How can we raise awareness to their unrealistic perceptions of the world, of the people around them, of the human life value, while, at the same time, setting aside our own socially-constructed morals to provide support, nurture and validation for theirs? Is there a way to effectively treat these dynamic personalities, to provide successful treatment for their thought processes? How can we erase the idea that these people cannot be saved, cannot be helped, cannot be worthy of psychological treatment? Are they simply lost causes?

In addition to homicidal desires, most gunmen in school shootings have prior attempts of suicide. The underlying motives for suicide usually consist of an assorted of disillusioned, negative variables, including depression, isolation, extreme rejection. What if we focused on those symptoms first?  Right now, when people express ideation for harming themselves or others, we follow the mandated ‘5150’ procedure for involuntary commitment. Is that enough? Removing them from the public protects and benefits society, but I’m wondering, what protects and benefits them?

In light of yesterday’s tragedy, I send my deepest wishes and remorse to the victims and their families. But, I also feel frustrated and angry that we failed to protect so many innocent lives because we have failed to adequately protect and help the perpetrators. As an aspiring therapist with a passion for the psychological dynamics of behavior, I do not believe anyone is a lost cause; I only believe that we have not found a workable solution.