Lately a common news topic is mass murder/suicide. With the media reporting shootings about once a month (lately sometimes more), we are left with anguish, heartbreak, anger, confusion and fear. Besides grief, the aftermath always includes the questions of why it happened and how it could have been prevented or foreseen.
Criminal investigators and forensic psychologists are hard at work to understand and explain the means and motivation behind these disturbed killers. Lawmakers are looking at gun control, schools look at policies to make campuses safer, investigators search for clues and answers, and forensic mental health workers search for preventative and treatment based approaches.
Take one of the most recent incidents, the twenty six year old in Oregon who killed nine students and wounded nine more at a community college. Following the shooting rampage, he killed himself. He was living with his mother and had a diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder. His mother loved shooting guns as a hobby. She reportedly owned many guns and took him to the shooting range often. He openly wrote about feeling that he was rational and others around him were not. He was also reportedly upset that he had no girlfriend (Cooper & Abdollah, 2015).
A difficult aspect of figuring out how to prevent such horrific outcomes is that while there are patterns and commonalities across some of these incidents, we can not attribute any one characteristic to all or most of them. For example, while most of these perpetrators are young males who plan the event carefully and have a fascination with weapons, it would be a very large leap to say that all young males who are interested in weapons will become mass murderers (Frances, 2015). Likewise, just because someone has a mental disorder does not automatically make them dangerous to themselves or others.
The number of mass murderers is accumulating and their desire to explain themselves in writing and videos on social media, provides us the opportunity to study the database that is evolving.
A Look Inside the Mind of Mass Murderer
In the study of the psychological mind of mass murderers we find some common themes. Many are loners who feel resentful that others experience privilege that they are not entitled to. They tend to ruminate about past humiliations and whether they have been rejected or hurt by others in reality or just in their minds. Fury, deep despair, and selfishness cause fantasies of violent revenge that will cause attention. Most expect to die or set it up so that they will be killed by police. But while we can identify a high risk group, finding the ones that will actually take it to the next step of planning and acting it out becomes like finding a needle in a hay stack.
While some events take place due to a build up of anger and frustration over time and are carefully planned out, others become possible due to high emotionality in the moment, substance use and the person snaps. The frequency of psychiatric disorders is in general high in the mass murderer population, but again becomes difficult to identify as the sole cause.
What we are left to deduce is that due to the complex nature of a mass murderer’s profile, professionals will continue to struggle to be able to prevent these horrific acts. However, whatever position one takes on gun control versus the right to bear arms, all could agree that it should not be easier to obtain a concealed weapon than it is to get mental health services. We can take firmer steps to provide psychological help to those at risk and in need. And, we can continue to crack down on bullying and help make mental health services accessible and encouraged, rather than stigmatized.
Cooper, J., & Abdollah, T. (2015). Oregon Shooter Rants in Writings About Having No Girlfriend.
Frances, L. (2014). The Mind of a Mass Murderer. Understanding the Motivations Won’t Be Enough to Prevent the Crimes.