WASHINGTON, July 27, 2015 — Although the insanity defense failed James Holmes, the perpetrator of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater massacre, Lafayette, La., shooter John Houser’s psychiatric history might be the perfect defense.
Because Houser killed himself during his rampage, the national conversation turned immediately to the typical fight over mental health and gun control. This impulse to blame guns and mental illness distorts the reality of events.
Mental illness is only rarely the cause of anger and violence. What mental illness often does is overwhelm or keep people from learning the inhibitions they need to function properly in society.
Thus mental illness can make it more likely that some individuals will respond with inappropriate violence.
Behavioral modifiers like drugs, alcohol, extreme stress and toxic relationships can also play just as significant of a role in violent crime as certain mental illnesses.
Because mental illnesses include a broad range of conditions that affect sufferers’ ability to function to varying degrees, the impulse to simply blame mental illness when a mass killing occurs stigmatizes those suffering from mental illness. This in turn makes people suffering from mental illness even more reluctant than they would be to seek help, while also depriving them of the social support they need to face their demons.
It is important to remember that the main reason for discussing the cause of a crime is to help prevent future crimes. Framing violent acts as a result of mental illness prevents communities from properly addressing the more common factors that lead to violent acts.
The truth is that anger and violence are part of human nature; these elements common to us all need to be recognized and controlled.
Society must encourage people to address their emotions and impulses in healthy ways that do not undermine social cohesion. The debate around mental illness and violent crime should therefore focus on how mental illness resulted in a particular criminal act as well as what solutions might prevent those particular situations from arising again.