Gun Violence, Child Abuse, And A Mental Health Crisis
Mass shootings in America are evidence of a nationwide mental health crisis.
In recent days, I’ve seen the mental health community rise up in self-defense in response to suggestions that mental health is the cause of gun violence. I’ve seen people on Facebook posting links to articles on Facebook to remind us that mental illness didn’t pull the trigger. I’ve seen posts on Twitter reminding us that mental illness didn’t pull the trigger. All of this in response to the suggestion, by the leader of the Republican Party, President Trump, that mass shootings are caused by mental illness.
To me, this dialogue has been one long parade of deflection. Few if any are willing to look at the one true cause of all violence: child abuse. I have tried in vain to find other causes, but it all comes down to the same thing, over and over again: People would do better if they could. Children would do better if they could. Children are the greatest imitators in the world, and if they are exposed to violence, they will be violent or they will be drawn to people who are predisposed to violence.
It is a desire to punish the shooter for his crime that obscures our ability to see the cause of the mass shootings. There is no question that the shooters should be restrained by arrest and inceration, and maybe there is no rehabilitation for them, either.
But we have a principle in law that says that we cannot punish someone for a crime if we determine that the accused is insane, that he lacks the capacity to know the difference between right and wrong, and that he or she lacks the capacity to do better. And if all of that is true, then a cultural desire for punishment, for revenge, cannot allow for the possibility that the men who commit mass shootings might be mentally ill, maybe even insane, to interfere with a culturally perceived right to punish the shooter.
Some of us want to believe that people of sound mind are capable of such horrific crimes. I am here to say that people of sound mind, people who possess mental health, will find better ways to solve their problems than to murder other people.
This isn’t even close to saying that all people who suffer from mental illness are capable of such crimes. I just have a sincere doubt that people who committed mass shootings were mentally sound, that they possessed mental health, and I believe that they suffer from mental illness.
It is also worth noting that numerous people are accusing President Trump of inciting violence and that those mass shootings were precipitated by Trump’s words. I know people who are close to me and that support Trump. I’ve asked them about these accusations, and I trust them, as reasonable, practical people, when they say that they do not believe that Trump has incited violence. I take them at their word when they express their opinions to me about Trump.
I’m not a Trump supporter, and I oppose Trump, but if there are people who take the words of Trump and turn them into a reason to commit a violent act, that is on them, not Trump. If we assume that Trump’s supporters are adversaries in political discourse, and at the same time, we are going to debate them on the merits, then we must assume that most of them are sane, or at least, not mentally ill.
Sane people do not load a gun and go to a church, park, or shopping center to empty the magazine on those people and reload. Sane people do not do that. Ever. We cannot have a debate with insane people. It’s not possible. Insane people simply lack the capacity to have a meaningful conversation with those who are sane. It’s not a fair fight.
I believe that we are in the midst of a national mental health crisis. All one needs to do is look at the statistics and the headlines:
“Depression and Suicide Rates Are Rising Sharply in Young Americans, New Report Says. This May Be One Reason Why”
And as I write this, I am reminded of an image I captured a few days ago from the website of the American Society of Addiction Medicine:
I want to draw your attention now to a few key points in the passages in the image above. “Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.” Addiction is a disease of brain reward. To some of us, that sounds a lot like President Trump. Trump is a billionaire, and now President, and he could pretty much have anything he wants right now. Millions practically worship Trump. Millions think they need some kind of reward to feel better about themselves.
Addiction is in evidence when one is “pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.” When most of us think of addiction, we think of cocaine, pot, cigarettes, alcohol, oxycontin, and sugar. We don’t usually think of process addictions, like social media, sex, porn, gambling, and gaming.
The fact that we’re even talking about social media as an addiction is evidence of progress because now we’re expanding the scope of the topic of addiction to include process or ritual addiction. It’s time to expand the scope of addiction further to hate and violence.
“Addiction is characterized by [an] inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control…” People who open fire in churches, parks or shopping centers clearly lack impulse control. When they find themselves being shot at by police, being arrested, in prison, or dead, their lives are unmanageable. Those conditions are hallmarks of addiction.
In recent years, American culture has developed some comfort with identifying addiction as a form of mental illness. It has even become fashionable for celebrities to “check-in” to rehab. We have been forgiving of celebs who are working to resolve their addictions.
My favorite example is that of Robert Downey, Jr. Here was a man who had a record of numerous arrests for cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, and he recovered to star in some of the biggest movies of all time. Downey seems to have made recovery fashionable for celebrities. Downey is also bipolar and suffers from mental illness. Notice that even with a mental illness, he did not resort to gun violence.
It should be noted also, that not all mental illness is a result of child abuse. Some people are born with physical or psychological disorders that impair their functioning. Not all people with mental illness are violent. But I think it can be fairly said that if we look deep enough, we will find that of all people who are violent, they learned to be violent from somebody, usually in childhood.
Gun advocates have been reluctant to discuss mental illness, and in this respect, Trump’s suggestion is a good thing. We can see this reluctance in the way that American public policy on guns is written and administered. Mentally ill people still manage to get guns because the regulations that limit access to guns are poorly enforced, or not enforced at all. Our culture has been pretty lax about enforcement, with poor funding and inadequate staffing. Americans can acquire a gun with very little training, too.
Gun advocates often point to Switzerland in their defense. Switzerland has a very high rate of gun ownership and a relatively low rate of gun violence. They have not had a mass shooting since 2001. But what gun advocates fail to discuss is that in Switzerland, gun ownership is also very highly regulated, with very thorough background and psychological checks in place to prevent gun violence. And rigorous training is required before a gun can be acquired.
But I think there is something more to Switzerland and northern Europe in general. There is an effective ban on corporal punishment. Corporal punishment includes spanking and paddling. And according to Dr. Ross W. Greene, a psychologist who specializes in adult-child conflict resolution, Scandinavian countries have a strong preference for non-punitive, non-confrontational child-rearing methods, too. That kind of attitude in child-rearing explains their lower rate of gun violence better than the gun laws that they have.
Addiction is a compulsive pathological pursuit of relief from familiar negative experiences. When I say, “familiar”, I’m also thinking of “family”. I’ve heard it said that kids learn everything they need to know about relationships in the first two years of life. Kids observe the people around them, learning about their environment and encoding them in neural pathways. Their observations of the behavior of the people around them are memorized as survival skills.
When parents fight, children see that as a survival skill, every bit as much as when parents cooperate. Children learn to eat, walk and talk from the people around them, especially their parents. They learn what to look for in a mate from their parents. If their parents are glued to their phones, the kids see that as a survival skill. If the people around a toddler are violent, children will take that experience and normalize it. The feelings around their experience growing up, whether good or bad, are familiar, and later in life, they will seek to create circumstances that repeat those feelings because they feel familiar.
People use drugs to blot out memories that are painful. They use drugs to blot out the feelings associated with painful memories because, in our culture, we are not allowed to feel. Relief from that pain is the reward. What kind of pain?
Being spanked by a giant is painful. And when a toddler is spanked by a giant that is also their caregiver, the toddler assumes that it’s his or her fault they’re being spanked. A child has no idea that adults can choose to punish the child independent of the child’s behavior. So the child internalizes shame with punishment, too. And that shame is painful. An adult spanks a kid because that kind of behavior is familiar to the adult.
Many people say that they are “OK” after living through an early childhood life of spanking, threats, and admonishment, and they grow up to be functioning adults. But just because we’re functioning doesn’t mean that we’re well. By now, you’re wondering what this has to do with mass shootings.
Interpersonal conflicts give rise to powerful emotions. We feel angry, sad, frustrated, and even lonely after a confrontation with someone else. Both parties engaged in a conflict will have long memories of the conflict, with strong emotions associated with it.
Children will “split-off” from an experience of abuse at the hands of the parent. Children will bury the memories, but the feelings will emerge whenever they are triggered. Child abuse is a source of mental illness. I’ve seen this myself, first hand and with other people.
People who have sustained abuse in childhood will experience buried feelings and emotions and memories when something in adulthood reminds them. The memories are not conscious, but the feelings are. The feelings are so strong, they can render a person susceptible to addiction. They are prone to activities and substances that distract or relieve them of those strong feelings.
People who plan and engage in mass shootings do so for the adrenaline that is released in the process. Planning a mass shooting leads to adrenaline. Buying the guns and the bullets release adrenaline. And executing the plan leads to a huge rush of adrenaline. All of that activity is addictive and can blot out painful childhood memories and feelings. And all of that activity is rationalized by the addict.
A mass shooting then is when the addict hits bottom. It is the culmination of a long stream of decisions and planning, and during that time, the addict is getting a hit off of the adrenaline with every fantasy, every ideation, every visualization of the plan, all the way through execution.
If people are susceptible to Trump’s words and interpret his words as a suggestion to violence, it is because they are familiar with violence. Child abuse makes people susceptible to suggestions of violence because violence is familiar.
I think that the connection between violence in the family and on the street is starting to make its way into the mainstream. I have read a few policy statements by candidates for the Democratic nomination to run for president, and of those that I have read, none of them make a connection between child abuse and gun violence.
The only candidate who comes close to making that connection is noted author and inspirational speaker, Marianne Williamson. In her announcement speech, she noted that in her travels around America, just how many kids are living in poor conditions — not enough good food, common violence and not enough resources for education. On her campaign website, she notes:
The United States ranks at or near the bottom on almost every indicator regarding governmental policies toward children today. Our youth homicide rates are more than seven times that of other leading industrialized nations. Social scientists now describe “war zones” — areas in violently charged homes and communities — where levels of trauma and post-traumatic stress among children are similar to those experienced by returning vets. (emphasis mine)
Williamson is right to point out the epidemic facing our children. The conditions she describes applies to millions of children around the country. The mass shootings we see today are a reflection of how we treat our children today. The mass shootings are a reflection of our priorities, where we place ideology over mental health. It’s time to bring the bottom up so that we can help people escape from the cycle of violence.
We are a culture that has decided that money is more important than children. One only needs to see how this culture worships wealth, celebrity and power to know where our priorities lie. One only needs to see how little we invest in our children at the state and federal level. One only needs to see that for some of our leaders in Congress, quality of life isn’t that important after kids are born.
I’m a father. I have a wife and two kids. I have done some overtime, and I have concerns about money, but my kids come first, before the job, before the bank account. Why are we working in the first place? To have and to raise kids and to give them a better life than we had? Or do we just want to load up on possessions before we die?
As a parent, I’m working to provide the environment, space and the time, to allow my kids to grow up in peace. Love is the action of allowing the people around me to grow to the greatest extent possible while doing no harm. By that definition, as a culture, we are not loving our kids. By that definition, American culture promotes an environment that is adverse to love. If money is a god, then we are creating an environment that encourages violence, that withholds empathy, that eviscerates love.
If we really want to stop the mass shootings, yes, better laws and better regulation will help. But we won’t touch the root cause until we examine the way we raise our kids. Once we are clear as to what child abuse is, and what that abuse manifests later on in life, we can get clear on what our goals should be.
If we raise our kids in peace, they will be peaceful. Perhaps after a generation of raising kids in peace, we can live a life without gun violence.