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Hard To Know For Sure

In the 1990s I worked for the PBS station in Austin, Texas. Our offices and studios were located in the communications building, which sat in the shadow of the infamous UT Tower. The tower was most famous for being ground zero for one of America’s first mass school shootings. In 1966 a student and former Marine barricaded himself in the tower with an arsenal of rifles that he used to kill more than a dozen people. People were quick to point out that the shooter had recently sought help from a therapist at the school’s health center. Later an autopsy revealed a small brain tumor that some speculated may have been the motivation for his actions. Or maybe not. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to know for sure.

Yesterday a student on that same campus took a bowie-style hunting knife and randomly stabbed several people. One person is dead. Several are wounded. The student with the knife is in custody and charged with murder. Apparently he has a history of being treated for mental illness and there is speculation that his mental state might have led to his actions. Or maybe not. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to know for sure.

This after-the-fact musing about a person’s mental state and mental history wears on me. It’s easy to look at such events and say: Well, of course he was mentally ill. No one in his right mind could do such a thing. I’m not so sure. It is hard to determine what constitutes a “right mind.” When dealing with matters of the psyche, it is rarely cut and dried. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to know for sure.

I have known people who struggle with mental illness. Depression. Bipolar disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Addiction. Anxiety. Attachment issues. There is a terrible stigma attached to these diagnoses and many patients stay in the shadows. The people who’ve confessed such suffering to me have done so in small whispers or I have received the information second hand, after the person is found dead by suicide. I don’t blame anyone for hiding these illnesses. Society has a way of lumping people together in uncomfortable categories. When we hear about mental illness, mostly in the aftermath of violence or of suicide, we tend to imagine everyone who suffers will travel that same path. In fact, most people who live with mental illness will never harm anyone else. Most will never harm themselves, at least not fatally. You cannot tell by looking at someone’s health history whether he will ever commit a violent act. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to know for sure.

There are some things that predict violent tendencies. The best predictor is a past history of violence. If a person committed violent or cruel acts as a child or physically bullied others as an adolescent, that person is more likely to engage in violence as an adult. Being male is also a strong predictor. It’s not that women can’t be violent, but they are far less likely to be. Of course most people who grow up male and commit the occasional violent act as a child don’t grow up to attempt mass murder. Some do grow up to batter their wives or slap their children, though. Those are also crimes worth preventing. And maybe if we started intervening at younger ages when we see boys getting into fist fights or burning ants on the sidewalk, we could stop some of these violent acts. Maybe not. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to know for sure.

But here is what I believe. Mental illness is not a crime. It is not a prerequisite for criminal activity. The ability to commit homicide does not come with an easy diagnosis. I’m not dismissing the role of possible mental illness in any of these incidents, but I am begging everyone to use the reasoning skills we learned in Logic 101. Some violent people suffer from mental illness, but it does not follow that all people with mental illness are potentially violent. And it is possible for a person to seek psychiatric help and for that same person to later commit a violent act and for those two things to be unrelated. We want so desperately to determine a reason for unfathomable actions that we immediately treat the diagnosis of mental illness as undeniable cause and effect. But there are many other places to look for motivations and we should look in those places too. We should look at a person’s whole history, even when it makes us uncomfortable because we realize we may share some of the blame. We have to stop equating violent crime with mental illness or the people who need help will never feel free to seek it. But what do I know? I don’t know anything for sure.

Published in Politics Writing


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