The Argument Behind Mental Health Issues And Mass Shootings

Feb 22, 2018

Following last week’s school massacre in Parkland, many are calling for increased gun regulation. But some are also citing mental health issues in America that need to be addressed. 

Thousands of people gathered at the Florida Capitol (2/21) demanding action on gun control in wake of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
Credit Lydell Rawls / WFSU News

While much of the conversation revolves around gun legislation, some people are also pointing a need for greater mental healthcare.

Frank Farley is the former president of the American Psychological Association and a psychologist at Temple University. He explains the first problem with discussing mental health issues is the ambiguity of the term. He says mass-murderers are suffering from some disorder, but it might be above the understanding of modern psychology.

“My view is that they are sick, for sure," explains Farley. "Anybody that slaughters people that way is a sick person. But my feeling is it might be sick in their own way. That is, it may not connect very well with traditional diagnoses.”

He says it’s important to note nearly every American will experience some sort of mental illness like depression or anxiety.

When people think of a mental illness, what they’re usually thinking of is what’s called a major mental issue. This includes conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“We need to understand mass-murderers," notes Farley. "We need to understand how much of their behavior is unique, how much of their psychology is unique and how much is in common with other mass-murders so that we can hopefully get some kind of a profile that will help us ultimately in prevention.”

But what steps can lawmakers take to address mental health issues?  Bill Lee heads the Florida School Administrators Association. He says schools need to strengthen their psychology programs but lack the resources to do so.

"The in-depth types of counseling that some of these people need, that are really in need of serious professional help, that right now the schools certainly don’t have the resources to provide,” argues Lee.

And Farley agrees. He says devoting more resources to school psychologists can help identify children who might pose a risk and at the very least refer them to outside help.

“Things like impulse control, and dealing with anger and social-emotional issues. These can be dealt with in the early years. They will often show themselves in school settings.”

But the cooperation between schools and outside organizations, or even law enforcement can be tricky, notes Peter Langman, psychologist and author of School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators. Langman maintains the website, which contains resources and documents pertaining to school shootings.

"There’s been at least one shooting that occurred, at least partly, because administrators thought that their hands were tied by FERPA and were not allowed by law to share information regarding a potential homicidal student,” notes Langman.

The shooting he’s referring to occurred in 2013 in Centennial, Colorado. Student Karl Pierson threatened his teacher. The school conducted a threat assessment which determined he was a low-level risk. Administrators didn’t share the assessment with law enforcement fearing it would violate the federal student privacy law known as FERPA, which protects child education records. And ultimately Pierson killed one student.

Langman says lawmakers must be clear about the way schools report potential dangers and cooperate with law enforcement.

And there’s another issue: laws regarding patient privacy rights, known as HIPPA.

"It’s a matter of protocol," explains Alisa LaPolt of the Florida Chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illnesses. "And those protocols can be developed on the local levels with the community partners and with law enforcement.”

She says schools and mental care providers should work together to identify and properly treat children. She recommends new policies to empower schools to partner with community providers to conduct mental health screenings, much like the physical screenings children already receive, for all students in a way that identifies those students at-risk for or exhibiting a mental health condition and refers them to community resources.

In the wake of this most recent tragedy it’s not clear what, if any, legislation will be proposed to address mental health issues.