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There is no doubt that Adam Lanza, the alleged murderer, had mental issues. But let's not start spreading blame where it is undue, because we know from decades of research studies that the development of mental health issues comes with definitive markers that make themselves increasingly pronounced as they are left untreated.
Here again, we are likely dealing with another individual who was not receiving proper treatment, but one who also was all but sure to have been indicating either behaviorally or verbally that he was struggling.
After years of experience in the field of psychology and working within a psychiatric hospital, one thing I have seen over and over is that if you ask someone a question about their mental health they will answer. Only in the case of teenagers who don't want their parents to find out about drug use do we encounter patients who are not forthcoming. The vast majority (I would offhandedly estimate somewhere close to 99%) will freely tell you whether or not they are thinking about killing someone or killing themselves.
So what are we asking people?
Suicidal and homicidal ideations (in psychological parlance shorthanded to SI and HI respectively) are the first stage of this continuum of danger. Is the patient in question having thoughts of killing themselves or killing someone else? This is the first indicator, and while not as dangerous or developed as later stage criteria, this is a certain sign of deterioration and should be taken very seriously. These patients at this early stage will get into arguments and make threats. Maybe I should just kill myself, they will say. Or maybe they threaten to kill someone else. Typically they will later declare that they did not mean to say it, and they express remorse, but we cannot deal in chance when something like this is uttered. Their treatment must be immediate.
The next stage is having a plan. Are they planning on hanging themselves? Are they planning on cutting their wrists? Shooting themselves? Jumping off a bridge into traffic? If they have a plan, they will tell you what it is. This step increases the likelihood that should something deeply upset this person, they are one notch closer to doom.
Next we must determine whether or not they have the means available to carry out this plan. If their plan is to shoot themselves, do they have access to a gun? If their plan is to overdose on medications, do they have medications with which they could OD? Do they know where there is a bridge that they could jump off? Again, as the details of what would happen get painted in, we are increasing the danger of the situation because if something happens that upsets them, they have less thinking to do in order to actually pull the trigger, pun intended.
At the height of the continuum of danger is whether or not this is something the person states that they are wanting to carry out, and what are the protective factors involved. Do they have a support system in place? Do they have something to live for? Sometimes patients in the deepest states of despair need only to think about their pets and who would take care for them if they died. So in a wonderful way, our furry friends out there are literally saving people's lives by giving them something to cling to in their moment of mayhem.
None of these factors are difficult to determine, because usually the only thing required in order to obtain the needed information is to sit down and ask the person. Are you feeling this way? They will tell us. How do we know they will tell us? Because we know that if they are feeling like wanting to kill themselves or kill other people, we can deduce that they are feeling bad. And people do not want to feel bad. Unless they are psychopaths, but psychopaths are usually proud of not feeling bad and will tell you anyway. So either way, they are going to tell us.
What can you do?
If you or someone that you care about just made a threat of some sort, your responsibility is to immediately call the police. Do not wait. Do not negotiate. There is nothing to talk about. Call 911, report to the operator that someone just made a threat, and the police will come out and do what is called an APOWW. I forget what it stands for at the moment, but basically the police take them to the nearest psychiatric hospital for an evaluation.
Now let's say we REALLY want to get serious about preventing this sort of thing? What can we do?
Routine mental health evaluations could very well have prevented this and other massacres from happening by identifying individuals who are struggling with mental health issues and getting them into a treatment situation before they deteriorate. We can debate about gun control all day, but their were murderers long before their were guns, and along for the ride was mental health instability.
This is not a new problem. In fact, it is as old as the first first people on earth. We have been dealing with human suffering since the dawn of man. But what IS new is the idea that we can take a proactive approach to mental health rather than scurrying about like bees when something terrible happens, going through the motions of saying we need to prevent this, and then doing nothing that will effectively take a bite out of the problem. Routine mental health evaluations for the ENTIRE population should be as common as going to the doctor for a physical, or going to the dentist to have your teeth cleaned.
Aiming for the isolated mass murderer is just the icing on the cake. The cake is removing suffering and depression from the equation of life once and for all. This isn't something that is some pipe dream. It's something that can be done today. Right now there are the means available to screen you and your loved ones early for mental health conditions. If we are going to get serious as a society from preventing human suffering, from the sad kid getting bullied all the way up to the psychopath mowing down innocent people, we must get serious about mental health. The time is now.