Please read this with an open mind and try not to jump to any conclusions.
There was a shooting at my alma mater, Central Michigan University, last week.
A 19-year-old student shot and killed his parents in his dorm room. His dad was a part-time police officer in the Chicago area. His mother worked at American Airlines.
His roommate was there at the time and saw the whole thing.
The student then ran and spent the day eluding over 100 peace officers. They found him later that night, about half a mile away along some railroad tracks.
In 2008, the FBI narrowed its definition of “mass shootings” to where four or more people are killed, typically in the same location. But in 2013, they widened it to a much more general definition: “an ‘active shooter’ is an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” (Read more here.) It was the twelfth school shooting this year. And we’re only nine weeks into the year.
WHAT WE KNOW
According to news reports, campus police had multiple run-ins with him the day before the shooting. He seemed to be acting rather paranoid, telling them that someone was after him and was going to hurt him.
The police suspected he might be under the influence of drugs. So they took him to a hospital, where he stayed overnight.
His parents, 47 and 48 years old – just younger than me – drove to Mt. Pleasant to bring him home to the Chicago area for Spring Break.
The student left his parents in his dorm room for a moment, went to their car, came back with his father’s legally-issued handgun, and shot them. There is an eye-witness account of this, with accompanying surveillance video.
Then he ran.
He spent five days in the hospital and has been released to the Isabella County jail on $1.25 million bond. (I’ve also read the bond is $1.125 million, so this number may be incorrect.)
A close friend of his, interviewed by NBC, says the shooter was never rude, violent, or mean and that he was a good person to talk to.
So what caused this? What was it about this kid’s life that brought him to believe that he had to kill his parents?
I want to throw out some statistics for you to think about. You may already have an opinion of this kid, but the truth is if you weren’t there and you don’t know him, then you don’t know exactly what happened. That goes for all of us in all situations.
- FACT #1: People who have serious mental illnesses are responsible for only 3-5% of ALL violent crimes in this country.1
- FACT #2: Mentally ill folks are 12x as likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the population as a whole.1
- FACT #3: We don’t know (as of right now) if he suffers from a mental illness or not.2
- FACT #4: His friend thought he was a nice guy.2
- FACT #5: He had access to a handgun.2
- FACT #6: According to the NCADD (National Council on Addiction and Drug Dependence), alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes.3
- FACT #7: Campus security did not mention that they thought this kid had been drinking.2
- FACT #8: “…serious drug use can amplify and perpetuate preexisting criminal activity.”3 I have not read anything that says he had a record.
- FACT #9: We have no idea if he had taken any drugs – street, prescription, or otherwise.2
- FACT #10: We don’t know what kind of conversation with his parents preceded this act of violence.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
We don’t know the answer to the most important question yet: How could this tragedy have been avoided? What did this kid need that he did not get, and from whom? Was he perfectly “normal” before this, no warning signs, no nothing, and just *snapped*?
Yes, he was acting paranoid, and he did the right thing and sought help from campus police. But I would like to point out here that paranoia can be brought on by any number of things: Street drugs, prescription medications, certain mental illnesses, and some physical illnesses, to name a few.
Maybe he was having a “bad trip”.
Maybe he does have a mental illness.
Maybe he’d been perfectly fine up until this point and had his first psychotic break.
We don’t know, and we may never know. He may not even know why this happened.
No one but this student knows what he was thinking at the time. None of us are mind-readers.
I’m really just trying to make a couple points here, but I feel like my position needs defending. Why? Because we stereotype. Not every 19-year-old college student uses drugs (even alcohol) and not every act of violence is committed by a mentally ill person.
In my humble opinion, this case and others like it – indeed, violent acts themselves – are incredibly complicated. “Normal” human behavior is complicated enough, much less aberrant behavior. Unless this guy can give us a play-by-play of his entire life – especially the 24 hours preceding the murders – we will never know exactly what led to this tragedy.
But I have some knowledge about mental health, and since this is my blog, I’m going to share it with you. Please, if you disagree or have a question, take a look at my sources. If you’re still not sure, leave me a comment so we can have a dialogue.
MENTAL HEALTH V. MENTAL ILLNESS
You know what? If I attempted to tackle this entire topic, I would end up writing a second thesis, which is not my goal here.
I have a better idea: Let’s look at some of the differences between mental health (MH) and mental illness (MI).
If you look back at the Facts section of this post, you’ll remember that only 3-5% of violent acts are committed by people with serious mental illnesses. That’s a small percentage. Of course, when it does happen, or when it’s suspected (as it often is these days), it is totally exploited by the media. They often report only on the case at hand, without letting us in on the big picture. There is no context.
So it seems like it happens a lot.
Look, we all have mental health. Some days, we feel mentally healthy; others, not so much. Sometimes we need to take a “mental health” day off work to deal with stressful situations or to not burn out, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
If we don’t take care of our own mental health, we won’t be able to help anyone else. Self-care is vital in this stressed-out, the-busier-the-better world.
Being in a “good spot” emotionally helps us deal. Positive mental health is necessary for doing our thing as best we can. It’s necessary for living a fulfilling life.
On the other hand, poor mental health – being stressed out or burned out, getting sucked into bad habits, not taking the time to care for yourself – that can lead to more stress, behaviors that could get you in trouble, and it can lead to things such as depression or anxiety.
And you don’t want that.
Mental illness is when you have a disorder that affects your mood, thinking, and behavior, as well as your ability to function. Some of these can lead to psychosis (losing touch with reality), which I’ve never experienced, but I can’t imagine how scary it must be for all involved.
Here are some more sobering facts about mental illness (hey, knowledge is power!):
- 1 in 5 American adults, or almost 48 million, will experience a mental illness in a given year.
- Nearly 1 in 25 Americans live with a “serious” mental illness – that’s about 10 million people.
- Depression is the leading cause of disability in the entire world.
- 90% of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness.
- Nearly 60% of American adults with a mental illness did not receive mental health services last year.4 (all)
For more interesting, yet painful, facts about mental illness, check out this infographic. There are two other infographics with mental health information on this site also; one about children and teens and a multicultural one.
Since people with serious mental illnesses are only responsible for 3-5% of violent crimes, that doesn’t make it much of a risk factor for violence.
Bigger risk factors are being an American Indian or Alaska Native, involvement with drugs or alcohol, poor behavioral control, a history of early aggressive behavior, traumatic brain injury, having a blood relative with a mental illness, and similar characteristics.
Good mental health is an important part of leading a comfortable, happy, fulfilling life. Mental illness, especially if it’s debilitating? Not so much. Most mental illnesses are not curable, but they are manageable. With a shitload of effort, commitment, and support.
For me, it’s been a steady course of (the right) meds, talk therapy, DBT, TMS, and regular visits with my psychiatrist. And here’s the kicker – I take their suggestions (well, for the most part)!
For some, taking care of our mental health is a full-time job. No, really. Personally, I need to be “selfish”, in the best terms of the word, with my time, my energy, my ability to say “No” when needed, etc. Otherwise, I risk my illnesses getting worse and worse.
It’s really important for me to go to all of my appointments so my team and I can stay on top of things, see if any maladaptive patterns are developing, make sure my meds are right, make sure I am taking care of myself.
It’s the only way out. I’ve tried to do all this on my own before, and trust me – it gets ugly. Fast.
If you have any mental health issues, concerns, or questions, please talk to your doctor or someone you trust about them. You don’t want it to get the best of you.
IN A NUTSHELL
- School shootings can happen anywhere.
- Don’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions.
- Opinions are not facts.
- Only 3-5% of violent crimes are committed by people with a serious mental illness.
- That means 95-97% are committed by everyone else.
- You don’t need to be afraid of someone who has a mental illness.
- 48 million Americans will experience a mental illness this year. 48 million!
- Don’t take your mental health for granted.
- I hear a lot of people (parents, usually) say they “don’t have the time” for counseling, doctors, whatever. My response to them is: “If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of your [kids].”
- Please – talk to a professional if you need to. You’re worth it. 🙂
Question? Comments? Complaints? Suggestions? Let me know!
Until next time, Warriors.
Keep it Real.