A CNN article written by a psychiatrist highlights some ways in which we can help friends and loved ones who are showing signs of psychosis.
In the week that has passed since a gunman opened fire in an Aurora, Colorado midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, many have speculated on whether the shooter’s loved ones had noticed any signs of trouble in the young man. Certainly dropping out of his PhD program was a sign, but were there more?
In Maryland, a man was taken into custody after signs of mental issues, including claiming he was “The Joker” (the name that the Aurora shooter used for himself as well) and that he was going to shoot people. Authorities believe they thwarted a major attack after discovering an arsenal of weapons in the man’s home.
We don’t know a lot about the specific mental health conditions in either of these cases yet, but people have been studying other mass-killers and have some theories.
CNN.com is featuring an article written by psychiatrist Dr. Charles Ronson, who looks back on past cases and speculates as to what happened in the case of the Aurora killings.
Dr. Ronson explains that these shooters appear to be psychotic, and he explains what he means by that:
Because we use the word “psychotic” loosely in common parlance it is worth defining it more carefully here. To be psychotic is to have lost touch with common shared human reality. While this can and does occur in a variety of ways, most people with psychosis struggle with two primary types of symptoms: delusions and hallucinations.
Crime scene tape surrounds the Century 16 movie theater where 12 people were killed in Aurora, Colorado.
Delusions are fixed false beliefs. Sometimes delusions are wrong, but make sense. But just as often, they are so bizarre that the people afflicted with them cannot explain their ideas in a way that is comprehensible to anyone else.”
Thankfully, Dr. Ronson also points out that the vast, vast majority of people with mental health issues will never hurt anybody, but he believes there are some signs we can look for in people in order to help them get help when needed, and possibly prevent future disasters:
Sometimes it is obvious that someone has become psychotic because he or she says and does things that are indisputably bizarre, such as talking to themselves, espousing clearly strange and untrue beliefs, or not making any sense at all when talking.
But just as often the onset of psychosis is slower and more insidious. In these cases what strikes one is that the person has changed in some fundamental way. This seems to have been the case with most of the recent psychotic mass murderers in the United States.
He also talks about how the person in question may fall away from their normal social circles and become markedly more withdrawn.
Other signs of psychosis include these:
Spoken threats of violence, or indications that a person is preparing for violence, should always be taken with utmost seriousness. But this is even more true for people who are showing signs of psychosis, because — sadly — their delusions may give them a sense of urgency and depth of commitment that make violence much more likely.
Police: Evidence of ‘calculation,’ ‘deliberation’ in Colorado shooting.
Sometimes people who are planning violence for psychotic reasons are secretive. But just as often, they will tell you what they are planning to do if you ask them. For this reason, it is well worth checking in with psychotic individuals on a regular basis to ensure that their disease is not driving them into danger in this regard.
Regardless of whether the Aurora shooter or the man who tried to kill Gabrielle Giffords was psychotic, it seems a safe bet that if someone you know is exhibiting signs like this, it is time to connect with him or her and see if he or she is doing okay and whether they need anything.
If we hear or see signs of danger, it is of utmost importance that we act. Although the mental health system in the United States often fails both patients and society, it is still the case that in most states people can be hospitalized against their will when there is clear evidence either from their words or deeds that they intend to commit violence.
In my experience, such hospitalizations can often short-circuit the danger and get people into much-needed treatment. Of course, this is not always the case. But it is the best we can do, and it is a lot better than nothing.
We don’t know what may have happened in the Maryland case, but it feels very much like Dr Ronson is right: Doing something is a whole lot better than doing nothing. At the very least, you may have someone who is having troubles in their life feel less alone by inquiring as to how they feel and what their plans for the future are.
What do you think? Is there any way to know what motivated attacks like these or are they truly just a result of disease?
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