Back to the Old Mental Illness Dodge

Here is the “mental health and mass shooting” archive of Mahablog posts, starting with the most recent:

Evolutionary Psychology and Extreme Gun Ownership (October 7, 2017)

Labeling Stephen Paddock (October 3, 2017)

Are Guns Nuts Too Mentally Ill to Own Guns? (June 22, 2016)

The Fantasies of Terrorism (June 17, 2016)

On Crime, Crazy and Culture (December 24, 2014)

Impulse and Ideology (June 16, 2014)

Thoughts on the Mass Shooting du Jour (June 9, 2014)

The Heart of Darkness (Ma7 27, 2014)

Under the Crazy Rug (May 25, 2014)

Hitler and the Gun Nuts (January 12, 2013)

Guns as Sacred Objects (January 10, 2013)

Call Us All Crazy (December 24, 2012)

Defenses: Insanity (January 24, 2011)

Culture and Conditioning (January 11, 2011)

There may be some older ones, but I think that’s enough. They all kind of make the same argument, which is:

Most of the time, mass shooters don’t have a definable “mental illness.” They do tend to have a similar complex of common personality and behavioral characteristics, however. They tend to be hotheads. They tend to be impulsive. Often they are socially awkward in some way; women may call them “creepy.” They don’t tend to have successful relationships, in other words, although sometimes they are married. Very often they have histories of domestic violence and animal abuse. They probably hoard several firearms and have for a while.

Guys like this are as common as toast. What they don’t have is any kind of brain or medically defined psychiatric illness that accounts for their decisions to kill people. They are not psychotic; they are not hearing voices in their heads or imagining that the nice people in the church are really space invaders.

And there is no way for the psychiatrists to know whether this or that creepy hotheaded asshole is the one who might be a mass shooter, or not.  Further, there is no medical treatment for being a creepy hotheaded asshole.

So, labeling mass shooters as “mentally ill” does absolutely nothing to help us address the problem. It’s no different from calling them “bad” or “evil.” It’s a meaningless label that gives us no usable information.

The problem (especially argued in the most recent posts) is that this is more of a social or cultural problem than an individual one. There is something in our culture (plus the availability of firearms) that is causing this. One of those elements is our romanticization of firearms, I’m sure (see especially “Guns as Sacred Objects“). Somehow the acts of firing bullets into flesh is the “point”; mass killing by other means, such as by arson or bombs, is much less common among our creepy hotheaded assholes, which suggests those other means don’t have the same emotional appeal.

I’m also more and more convinced that the same complex of personality and behavioral traits that caused Devin Patrick Kelley to open fire in a church pushes young men elsewhere to join ISIS and other terrorist organizations. The difference between a “terrorist” and “some white guy shooting people for no good reason” is pretty damn blurry, and possibly meaningless, also. Well, except to some people.


12 thoughts on “Back to the Old Mental Illness Dodge

  1. A new book titled Twilight of American Sanity by psychiatrist Allen Frances may be worth looking at. The author dismisses all of the popular mental illness diagnoses of Trump, especially the most popular armchair diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. He wrote the DSM-III criteria for that disorder, and points out the one major criterion for the diagnosis that Trump is missing, namely that the symptoms cause significant  distress to the individual. He says that Trump is bad, but not mad. Most mentally ill people do not go around doing bad things, and most bad deed doers are not mentally ill. Most mass murderers are not mentally ill, nor are most terrorists.  Calling Trump mentally  ill stigmatizes the mentally ill, and all such talk needs to cease.


    He implies that Trump is not crazy; we (Us The Persons) the electorate are crazy. For example, Us The Persons cling to the delusion that global warming is not a real threat to all human life; we believe that technology will fix it or that God will fix it so we do not need to change our behavior with respect to our carbon footprints. Adhering to a fixed false belief is one of the DSM criteria for diagnosing delusional disorders.

  has a nice interview with the author. The author also is of the opinion that removing Trump will only make the situation worse if President Pence and VP Ryan are in office, shepherding their destructive agendas through Congress much more effectively than the current occupant of the Oval Office. That is his political opinion and is worth no more than anyone else’s for that question, but his professional opinion on Trump and mental illness is probably more authoritative than most people’s.

  2. There is definitely a mental illness associated with these incidences of mass shooting – it's the mental illness of denial on the part of all those who resist the idea that making it more difficult to obtain these weapons would decrease the number of these tragic events.

  3. To tourists:

    Welcome to America!

    This truly IS "the land of opportunity."  And we have a lot to see and do here!

    But use caution while you're here.

    There are angry people here who have some psychosis or another, and they have ample opportunity to buy all sorts of guns to act out their most violent dreams (or nightmares) – because our government is too cowardly to take on the gun lobby.  That fat hand feeds too many of these sociopaths to even think of biting it.

    And as a result, because we have few gun control laws – and can't prevent the carnage – all we are left with to do as the dead and dying pile up, is to pray for the victims. *

    *  To visiting Muslims, please use caution when, where, and how loudly and openly you pray.


  4. I am neither 'out,' nor 'replaced.'

    Somehow, part of some comment I was writing ended up as part of my moniker.

    It's now fixed.

  5. One upon a time, much earlier in my life, I was introduced to much psychological theory of Sigmund Freud.  As I recall his early works postulated a hydraulic model of human behavior.  The pump for this machine of motivation was Eros.  It changed locations as you aged.  Oral, Anal, etc.  It explained so much.  The European culture thought it was on a breakthrough path of understanding how humans worked.  Then came the world war, now termed WW1.  A horrific human action so totally contrary to Freud's theory he had to add a new pump.  This pump was named Thanatos after the Greek god, the personification of death.


    It was good that Freud was willing to change his thinking when the facts did not align with theory.  It was a grander day, and that was normal intellectual behavior. Today I listen or read one media outlet after another noting the need to find the motivation for this horror of a shooting massacre.  I suppose one cannot say the motivation was Thanatos, as this might be considered too polytheist for some.  Besides, if Thanatos had godlike powers and was still around, then we might not want to let almost everyone buy powerful guns, lest Thanatos be able to work though them.  Worse yet the evangelicals would have to deal with the Pagan notion of too many gods.  They would raise a din heard all the way to the FCC. 


    I agree with the general views of those commenting, we have a mental health problem here and it is that of the current national culture.  Too many live in the rabbit hole and come out to vote for the most narrow minded, intolerant oaf on the ballot.  It is a national epidemic of cranial-rectal syndrome of unprecedented proportions.  Other than that it looks pretty much like poor political leadership problem to me. 


  6. Personal powerlessness seems a definite ingredient.  But I'm a bit lost on their willingness to be known posthumously as pure concentrated evil.  Why can’t they go out trying to be something heroic, like a Spartacus or Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

    If cultural conditions were different maybe a few would sacrifice themselves going after obvious bad guys, like a famous sexual predator or corporate kleptocrat.  But I'm not quite sure what those conditions are…

    Is this where misanthropy meets laziness and cowardice?

  7. Personal powerlessness seems a definite ingredient

    That's the main ingredient, and the catalyst that works in conjunction with all the other negative emotions to produce violence.

  8. "But use caution while you're here"

    Gulag, obviously the solution is that all visitors (cept the mooslims) to the US should be issued an assault rifle at the customs checkpoint, how else can they keep themselves safe?

  9. A lot of men make mistakes in moments of extreme passion, but as said in the post, a history of repeated domestic violence is what I'm hearing,  Angry, powerless and emotionally stupid is no way to let a loved one go through life. 

    Still, how do their kind act out in, say, Japan?  Obsessive pachinko?

  10. Though I didn't take the time to read each articles, I did notice a pattern between the first 4 I read. Steven Paddock worked doing stamped concrete when he found a partner to help buy firearms. As did Devin Kelley when he met a guy at the workplace that would give him secrets on how beat the Air Force system on purchasing guns.

  11. Things I wonder about this issue:  "the one major criterion for the diagnosis that Trump is missing, namely that the symptoms cause significant  distress to the individual"…

    – the diagnosis of some personality disorders is actually lack of distress, lack of concern for others in particular, and the manual doesn't actually mention feeling distress, just mentions impairment – and impairment is surely often judged by others, not necessarily the impaired (indeed many brain injury sufferers can be oblivious to their disabilities, it's actually a known brain injury symptom)

    – Ample money can diminish or eliminate all sorts of "distress", paper it over, overcome it, or hide it very well, or even distract from the presence of distress

    – how does anyone know what distress Trump experiences or doesn't?  I personally see some behaviour as hinting of coming from a motivation of significant distress

    So while I agree with the argument that it's probably a waste of time & rather pointless trying to understand the origins, causes, or diagnosis of the behaviour of a rich 71 year old… —  that should be the argument, not some declaration masquerading as an argument, that the Donald is not distressed and is unimpaired like that's a given objective fact. 

  12. Ali, I do agree with you. A pattern no doubt exist and this continues to be the trend as all mass shootings are occurring more frequently. As a society, I hope we can come up with a system to not only spot this but stop it. 

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