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First some disclaimers:
These guys don't come around often, and when they do, they usually kill themselves before they are able to be apprehended. Thus, we don't have just a whole lot of data on these guys, so it would be impossible to be able to make assumptive generalizations about them because we don't have a random enough sample to statistically be able to do that.
Also, we aren't going to take this opportunity to get into a political debate.
Finally, our condolences to the friends and family of those that are lost. This is a difficult time, and for those survived we hope that they may find peace in the cherished memory of the loved and the lost.
Now, can we ever put an end to this sort of thing? I believe we can.
First we must turn to our dear friend psychology in an attempt to identify and understand these sorts of rare birds.
It is long been a legend of psychology (not well backed by the literature though there are a number of those in the field who take these traits very seriously) that there is a "unholy trinity" of three traits that comprise a future psychopath. Having just one of these traits can be fairly normal, so any one trait alone should not be considered cause for alarm. Even if all three of these are present in a child that you know, it doesn't necessarily mean that they must be taken immediately to the padded walled basement of the psych hospital. But it is certainly a piece of evidence that will need to be carefully considered and monitored by a licensed professional.
1) Bedwetting (enuresis or encopresis): Not the typical child bedwetter, these bedwetters will wet long past the usual stage in their development when such behavior should have been grown out of. Still wetting the bed through late childhood and early teenage years is typically an indication that something is wrong.
2) Fire setting (pyromaniac): A lot of kids, and especially males can be very curious about fire. So from time to time you may catch kids burning various things. Certainly take the time to educate your children on the potential dangers of fire setting, but if your kid strikes a match, we should not sound alarm bells and take them immediately to the psych hospital either. If the problem with fire grows larger, there may be something going on. Consider that at a fundamental level, fire is, on the continuum of order versus chaos, one of the more chaotic assimilations of matter. So a preoccupation with this type of matter state (as opposed to being fascinated with building blocks or putting things together or something more progress based) is certainly not the path of development we would optimally like to see.
3) Animal cruelty: Intentionally inflicting pain on animals is arguably the more serious of these three characteristics. The base of our humanity must be modeled to engender good will and help to each other. However, sometimes when we are mad our reaction is to attempt to inflict pain on each other. Here, though, we are concerned with the infliction of pain where it is not instigated. Youths who engage in these types of behaviors are at risk to develop into cruel adults if not properly treated. Antisocial personality disorder is often a direct mutation of childhood cruelty, especially when that cruelty is not a result of being incited.
In adulthood, we should be suspicious of any sudden and significant deteriorations in functioning. In the case of James Holmes, we know that he was in the process of withdrawing from a neuroscience program at the University of Colorado. "Significant deterioration in functioning" is a criterion for just about every diagnosable mental health disorder, but in the case of Mr. Holmes, we might expect that his deterioration may have been the result of the onset of schizophreniform disorder, which is the precursor to schizophrenia. Though once again we must be reminded that we don't have a plethora of data to back up any assertions that we make about the psychopath population due to their relative seclusion from society and the professionals that could help them, we have seen a number of mass murderers and serial killers who have been afflicted with schizophrenia, most prominent of which is Ed Gein, the basis of myriad Hollywood horror movies such as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and Hitchcock's "Psycho."
Now, this isn't to say that schizophrenics are ticking time-bomb murderers waiting to happen. There are plenty of schizophrenics who, when properly treated, enjoy a high level of functioning such as John Nash, the basis of the movie "A Beautiful Mind" and Elyn Saks, featured in this Ted Talk video. A good portion of schizophrenics are fully capable of independent living when the right treatment is rendered.
In the case of Mr. Holmes, his recognition would have been more difficult to spot. As of this writing, there isn't a lot of history to connote a definite affinity to psychopathology. Indeed his only societal infraction seems to have been a traffic summons, and those that knew him describe him as "quiet." But we must be careful here, as there are plenty of kids dropping out of their collegiate program who are "quiet" who aren't dressing in black battle gear and shooting up the place. In fact, this year all of that sample, save for one lone mismanaged soul, failed to go ballistic.
Keep in mind that in the case of Mr. Holmes, we may not have been looking at schizophrenia at all. Mental health disorders such as Major Depression and Bipolar can both come complete with audio hallucinations as a symptom criteria, and a number of those audio hallucinations can be of the command variety. Thus, we have a number of people afflicted with mental illness that are hearing voices telling them to either kill themselves, kill others, or both. These audio hallucinations are brought on typically because the brain is undergoing a fair amount of stress when not relieved of the negative intensity of psychiatric disorders. When the brain is distressed in this way, it may release cortisol, a chemical that operationally is poisonous to the brain, and thus can cause parts of the brain to malfunction. Audio or visual hallucinations are often the result of this type of neuronal poisoning, and sometimes the individual who is traumatized by this ongoing condition will feel relief may only came by satiating these commands.
So can we prevent this type of thing?
I would put money on James Holmes failing to receive mental health services anywhere. I suspect that had he been receiving some sort of services, this tragedy could have been suppressed. But so far, the news is not reporting that he was receiving any such services. At this time we would like to pause and remind any entities rendering services to Mr. Holmes that they may do well to re-familiarize themselves with these relevant Privacy Rules.
Now, we obviously cannot force adults into getting treatment for mental health problems unless a medical doctor issues an Order of Protective Custody, which will be issued in the event of a person who is imminently suicidal, homicidal, or suffering from a serious deterioration in functioning such that they cannot make an informed decision on their own behalf.
We can make a better effort as a society to screen for mental illness, even when we don't think there is a problem. Currently, most people go to the doctor for annual exams, even when they do not believe there is anything medically wrong with them, just to make sure they are in tip top shape. We fail to keep up with ourselves in the same capacity for mental health. This is why Pursuit of Happiness has developed mental health checkups. We believe that your mental health is every bit as important as your physical health, if not more so. The body is controlled by the mind, and when the mind is at risk, a variety of mental and physical health problems can ensue.
Could we have identified potential amok runners like James Holmes with a mental health checkup? Obviously we can't guarantee that we would, but at least, at that point, we would have stepped up to the plate, where right now, that same batter's box is vacant.
Pursuit of Happiness
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