Thirty-seven. The number of lives lost from the twenty-six active shooter situations in 2010. Almost 50 were wounded. Six of these shootings were in schools. Two of those were in elementary schools. Twelve of the shootings were in places of business, usually perpetrated by an employee, a former employee, or someone in a relationship with an employee. In the wake of an active shooter situation, we often find ourselves searching desperately for answers. Why would someone do something we find so unthinkable? In the a sense of logic, we are left with speculation. Unfortunately, this can lead us to some wrong conclusions. We try to profile active shooters, to predict who they are. The problem with this is that there is no one unique set of circumstances at play in an active shooter. Yes, the FBI study of active shooters did show some commonalities. Most active shootings were planned weeks and sometimes months in advance. Most of them demonstrated some kind of concerning behavior and were under stressors. One of the stressors most commonly reported was “mental health.” This becomes clear when we see that many of the shootings occurring in businesses were committed by employees who were just fired or were in a legal battle with their employer. Losing one's job (their livelihood and their identity) can have devastating mental affects.
This is where we will focus this blog. What does “mental health” even mean? In the same study that identified mental health as a stressor, the FBI also identified that only 25% of the active shooters studied actually had a diagnosed mental disorder. When the FBI used the term “mental health,” it is distinct from a mental disorder. Of course, our instinct in trying to understand active shooters is to just assume that they were all crazy, because in our logic, no sane person would ever do something like that. The term mental health deals more generally with things like depression, anxiety, paranoia, etc. These are relatively normal things that average people go through. This is why using “mental health” as the sieve for sorting out active shooters from the general population just does not work. Far too many people would be classified as "at risk" that are simply normal people dealing with depression or anxiety.
The challenge is that this classification does not leave us with any clear-cut easy identifiers for active shooters. This does not make them “normal” per se, but it does make them harder to identify. Often, active shooters have a variety of issues that people close to them actually notice but don’t think about. For example, many shootings have been copycats of the Columbine shooting that was highly publicized. Why? Because while the majority of the population found the shooting to be revolting and disgusting and shameful, there were others who saw empowerment and glory and did not see the distinction between fame and infamy. They saw shootings as a chance to be glorified.
While, indeed, mental health is an issue when it comes to active shooters, other questions we should also be focusing on are
1. Why are we glorifying active shooter situations through mass media coverage? And
2. Why does our culture not advocate for general mental health?
Look at the fact that a majority of school shooters in middle and high school are students, former students, or young adults somehow connected to the school. Some of them are former teachers. What do you think it would have to take to make a former teacher walk into a classroom and start shooting students? These people, while they are most likely not suffering from a mental disorder, are probably under so many stressors that coping just is not an option any more. Why do we not have counseling programs for teachers and students? Actual counselors, with actual degrees in psychology, not educational advisers. Why do we not have a once-a-week counseling session set aside for each student and teacher? Many of the shooters in places of business were recently fired or recently had an altercation with an employee. Why do we not have policies of reporting altercations to security/police so that they can be keeping an eye out for the disgruntled former employee or ex-dating partner? Why do we not go through training to identify an employee willing and able to retaliate for getting fired? There are things we can be doing. We could stop glorifying active shooter events. We could provide students with healthy outlets. We can put measures in place to protect employees from former employees. This needs to stop being about catching active shooters before they happen. This needs to be about loving on our students and promoting a culture of connection and prioritized health in our schools and businesses. This needs to be about giving our students and teachers a break in an otherwise stressful rat-race. This needs to be about taking care of our employees if at all possible rather than about the bottom line. The culture as a whole needs to change, but it starts with us.