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The Tragic Shooting in Colorado

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

The shooting that took place in a movie theater in Aurora Colorado was tragic and baffling. Why would someone commit such a heinous crime? I have heard a number of the most common reactions when this type of thing happens: 1) “Life today is just awful. Look at all the violence around us. It’s not safe to go out;” 2) “That person must be mentally ill, why else would someone do that?” It’s important to dismiss both points of view because they are not accurate and they help foster an environment of fear and paranoia when it’s totally unnecessary.

First, modern communications and the rapidity with which news travels today it is easy to get a false impression about life today. Given the fact that the population of the United States and the world is larger by leaps and bounds than it was during the 1970’s it is easy to feel like all types of events happen with greater frequency than was previously true. Combined with rapid communications and a much larger population, the media help foster an atmosphere of fear, dread and cynicism that is uncalled for. By running this type of news story repeatedly from one channel to the next and for days on end, it makes it seem that the tragedy is recurring and is never ending. It is no surprise that so many people feel pessimistic and cynical about life today. People sit in front of their televisions reliving the violent and tragic events. No one seems to notice that when they leave the house, life continues with a calmness and serenity that contradicts what the media portrays. The fact is that there have always been random acts of violence. It’s important for us to reassure our children if they ask and ourselves that, in reality, these types of events are rare and that all of us are OK.

Second, studies show that people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other psychotic illnesses are no more likely to be violent than the population as a whole. The distorted image of the mentally ill as violent is fostered by movies that create such a false notion. In addition, with no one else to blame when these tragedies occur, almost in a knee jerk reaction, blame the violence on mentally ill. The fact is that people who show no trace of psychosis commit terrible crimes. After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center the same reaction happened. People accused Osama Bin Laden of being mentally ill. Only later did people come to understand that mental illness played no role in the events of September 11, 2001.

If it is not mental illness, why would someone commit such a horrifying act as happened in Colorado and elsewhere? While it is not yet known what the motivating factors were for the murderer in Colorado, people commit these acts for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with mental illness. In some cases a particular person feels that society has wronged him in a certain way and ragefully lash out. Perhaps they felt ostracized or bullied. Also, the media focus on these types of events provokes “copy cat” actions. Perhaps an individual wants the same type of media attention. In some cases, politics are a strong motivation for a murder as happened with the female senator from Arizona. Many years ago a similar mass murder took place at a Texas university and, as sit turned out, the shooter had a brain tumor that led caused this to happen.

The main point being made here is that, while acknowledging that this was a terrible thing to happen,  everyone should go about there daily lives without cowering at home for fear that they will be victimized.  Finally, I advise everyone against sitting in front of the news channels where all you will get is a distorted view of the world as a violent and crazy place. Again, reassure yourself and your children if they bring it up.

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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