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What Part Did Mental Illness Play in the Sandy Hook Shootings?

The mass shooting of innocent children and teachers in Newton, Conn., has weighed down hearts and minds for the last week.

And one of the main concerns is the role that mental illness may have played in the shooting. It’s hard to understand how anyone could want to kill as many people as possible, especially children and teachers at an elementary school.

The only reasoning behind this tragedy for many people is that the shooter must have been severely mentally unstable, and had a desire to inflict his internal suffering on others.

Various sources stated that Adam Lanza, the shooter, had a mental disorder such as Asperger’s syndrome or even schizophrenia. Other sources suggest that the shooter was rebelling against a potential involuntary commitment by his mother (who he also shot and killed according to ABC News) due to his mental health condition and the now-apparent danger to others.

Experts explain what connection mental illness possibly had to the fatal shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Elizabeth Waterman, a psychologist at Morningside Recovery Center, said in an email that there is no doubt mental health issues were a major factor that led to the shootings.

“An individual who engages in the planning and execution of an act such as this [is] certainly troubled mentally and emotionally,” Waterman said.

Although she said without knowing his background and symptoms she can’t diagnose him with a specific mental disorder, it was apparent he had “serious psychological problems.”

However, just because someone has a mental illness does not mean they could end up going on a shooting rampage.

“I do not believe that major mental illness in and of itself is a sufficient sign that someone is potentially dangerous,” Waterman said. “Most people struggling with severe mental illness are not dangerous to themselves or others.”

Heather Meggers-Wright, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Birmingham-Southern College, said in an email that many people tend to “attribute unthinkable events ... to people who are mentally ill.” However, mental illness does not necessarily contribute to the type of behavior exhibited by shooters.

“Rarely does a psychological disorder completely, or even mostly, explain violence against others,” Meggers-Wright said.

“Perhaps only in the case of a person experiencing active psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations does a disorder cause violence. In other words, if I'm hearing voices that tell me to commit some act and I have active delusions, usually paranoid and bizarre beliefs, that have convinced me that I'm under imminent threat from some outside force.”

She said generally in a mass murders, shooters plan ahead of time and make careful decisions that “require higher order mental faculties.” This means that shootings generally do not happen on impulse.

“[Shooters] are not caught up in a moment of anger or fear,” Meggers-Wright said. “They are in their ‘right mind’ and making clear, if reprehensible, decisions. They are not representative of people with mental illness.”

She does agree that mental illness could be a “piece of a puzzle” in the reasoning behind a shooting, but it’s more of a gradual process involving many other factors, such as personality and the development of a certain belief system.

In some cases, a mental health condition could lead to school and social issues (like rejection), which could over time lead to a loss of emotional connection with other individuals and violent behavior as a possible result. A cultural desensitization to violence, and decreased social interaction and loss of empathy, only worsens the picture as well.

Gender differences could also have a small part in crimes like shootings.

Dr. David Sack, the CEO of Promises Treatment Centers, said in an email that this is mainly because men are generally more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and certain substances “impair judgment” and lower peoples’ inhibitions to the point where they may be more prone to violence.

“Murders and violent crimes are more common in men than women but many factors may contribute,” Sack said. “Serious mental disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have equal sex distributions so this is probably not the explanation.”

Waterman added that “men are typically the perpetrators in these types of crimes and it may be due to a combination of genetic influence, environmental factors, and societal factors that result in a person acting out in such a violent manner.”

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