What is “Mental Illness”? Not What Caused Newtown


I am deeply saddened by the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut. It is difficult to make sense of the despair that motivated the violence. As one who works in the mental health field, I hear too many of my colleagues leap quickly to judgment and blame. However, let me assure you that this tragedy was not due to mental illness.

First, let’s address just what we mean by mental illness. It is not a disease, disorder or illness. It is not a chemical imbalance of the brain. There are no biochemical markers, no biological tests, no hard evidence at all, to \”prove\” the existence of \”mental illness.\” Proof means the ability to demonstrate a reliable association between a clearly specified pattern of observables and other reliably measurable event(s) that operate as antecedents. (This is same level of proof used for TB, cancer, diabetes, etc.) Our thoughts, moods, feelings or emotions are not a disease, disorder or an illness.

So, what is mental illness? It is a psychiatric label of behaviors that deviate from an arbitrary norm. If you tell a friend that you feel depressed, the friend will acknowledge the feeling and suggest activity that will help you feel better. If you tell a psychiatrist you feel depressed, you’ll be labeled as having depression (as if it’s a disease instead of a feeling) and given powerful drugs to mask your feeling.

Over ninety percent of people in the public mental health system are survivors of abuse, neglect or trauma. The surest way to create a “mentally ill” adult is to abuse, neglect or traumatize a child. Additionally, people in the public mental health system die over 25-years younger than the general population. Research into the many shootings in recent years indicate that the shooters all had some common traits. They were all survivors of abuse, neglect or trauma. They all had taken psychiatric drugs that are known to sometimes cause heightened homicidal or suicidal feelings.

My wife and I offered sewing classes in our home to over 55 neighborhood kids. We encountered every sort of horror imaginable in the lives of these kids. They survived abuse, neglect and trauma in their homes and at school. Their lives were filled with the sort of despair that could drive them to become a shooter some day. We reached out with love and caring and understanding and concern. We knew we could never undo the hurt and harm that had been done to them but we could provide a balance instead. We gave so that the children would have something positive to balance out some of the negative in their lives. It’s our hope and belief that we can somehow mitigate some of the despair and that at some point these children will choose to not pull a trigger and instead recall the positive, warm and caring that gave hope.

In Newtown, the shooter had been psychiatrically labeled. He felt despair. He experienced a divorce in which he felt unloved and unwanted. He felt despair. His mom was seeking guardianship to force him into unwanted treatment. He felt despair. He felt that his mom loved her friends and the children at school more than him and just wanted him to go away. He felt overwhelming despair.

There are no excuses to justify the sad and unfortunate taking of life in Newtown, but I can’t help but wonder if there might not have been a different course if Adam had something to balance and mitigate some of the despair. Instead of a system of force and coercion that further traumatizes people, what might have been the path he’d have chosen if there were a system of caring and compassion that reached out to those who despair. What if there’d have been a system that was attractive and desired instead of a system of force and coercion?

What if there’d have been a system that had trauma sensitive peers who knew what it’s like and made a caring connection? I can only imagine that this tragedy could have been avoided and Adam would have chosen another path that wouldn’t have been so full of despair and violence. Perhaps in a life with choices and options and hope and not a life of trauma, psych drugs and despair, force and coercion, Adam would have chosen a different path and this tragedy could have been avoided. We have to change for a better future.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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Pat Risser
Pat Risser is an award-winning trainer, facilitator, speaker, author and consultant. He has been a human rights activist and mental health advocate for over thirty years. His lived experience includes work as an Intensive Case Manager, work as a therapist on a locked, acute inpatient unit, and over ten years as a "mental patient." He developed over 60 self-help, peer support groups, built and directed a statewide consumer network and directed a patients' rights/advocacy/self-help program. His emphasis is training on trauma issues, recovery, self-determination and on employing people with lived experience as part of the behavioral health workforce.


  1. A truly wonderful essay Pat, told from the side of the street that knows trauma and mental illness for what it is. A side of the street not lost in “intellectual” competitions of egoic rank & status needs, pretending that the need to judge others as “lesser than” is not part of an academic agenda. “Those pitiful others,” as Murray Bowen pointed out during the 1950’s, when a reaction to the carnage of two world wars, made us more “honest” in our observations of the human condition.

    Can the hundreds of thousands of mental health care “professionals” a word steeped in the egoic need of social status, face up to the deep conflict of interest in their profession? Our misery, is their livelihood? Why would they want to research the cause of mental illness, in the nature of being human and the hidden reality of the “trauma trap?” Perhaps your readers may consider;

    Madness & the Chaotic Energies of The Trauma Trap?

    s a new understanding and appreciation of Trauma, re-defining our view of Madness & Mental Illness?
    Is the experience of Mental Illness being re-defined, as The Trauma Trap?

    Does the Human Mind, actively block a Natural Process, of Trauma Resolution? Resulting in the signs and symptoms of Mental Illness?

    Its hard for us humans to give up our egoic conviction, that the mind is the center of the known Universe (no pun intended, of coarse). Yet are we entering an era of science research and spiritual yearning, which may be ushering in the golden age, so many Mad Euphoric’s, have long predicted?

    Is Religious Ecstasy, for example, one of the positive symptoms, now considered an illness in our objectively rational, modern era? Of coarse, the negative symptoms of mental illness, still holds sway, in our normal judgment.
    Sadly, our shadow, is still taller than our Soul?

    Trauma and Spirituality:
    In a lifetime of working with traumatized individuals, I have been struck by the intrinsic and wedded relationship between trauma and spirituality. With clients suffering from a daunting array of crippling symptoms, I have been privileged to witness profound and authentic transformations.
    Seemingly out of nowhere, unexpected “side effects” appeared as these individuals mastered the monstrous trauma symptoms that had haunted them- emotionally, physically and psychologically. Surprises included ecstatic joy, exquisite clarity, effortless focus and an all-embracing sense of oneness. _Peter Levine, PhD. Author of the quintessential guide to trauma resolution;
    “In an Unspoken Voice.”

    So what does “Trauma Trap,” actually mean?

    n his 1997 book “Waking the Tiger,” Peter Levine described his unique views on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as trapped survival energies needing to be discharged. His ideas and success in treating trauma sufferers with his unique approach, helped lead a revolution in the mindful approach to emotional issues in a wide variety of therapeutic practices.

    In “Waking the Tiger” Levine asks a simple, yet potent question? “Why do animals living in the wild, not suffer post trauma effects, after the kind of experiences that cause the symptoms of PTSD in many humans?”

    It takes a momentary suspension of our normal reasoning, to imagine an unconscious nervous system, mediating much of our everyday social behaviors, as the evolved nervous system we share with all other mammals. As an evolved aid and defense of survival, mammals have an innate ability to feign death as a last ditch, instinct for survival. When there is no possibility of fight or flight, no possible means of escape from immediate and overwhelming threat, mammals escape into a simulated death state. “The Trauma Trap?”

    Humans share an evolved autonomic nervous system with other mammals, although evolutionarily adapted to our unique needs. If we imagine such human reactions as shock, fainting, freezing in fright or even in the sensations of acute embarrassment, when we feel that desire for the ground to open beneath us. It becomes possible to see a “continuum” parallel, with a mammalian ability to feign death?

    Recent advances in our knowledge of the autonomic nervous system, have altered the famous fight/flight notion of the human stress response, to a freeze/flight/fight response, as the order of our instinctual responses, to the kind everyday environmental stress we encounter. Again, it takes a momentary suspension of our normal, everyday reasoning, to imagine a continuum of response, by degrees? This unconscious trick to aid survival, the stimulation of a temporary death state (an extreme “freeze” response), adapts to a subtler state of “tonic immobility,” an important aspect of “The Trauma Trap.” Please consider;

    “Traumatized people are too “suppressed,” too stuck in “primal defenses” more appropriate to our amphibian or reptilian evolutionary predecessors. So what is a therapist to do with human beings hurt and beaten down by past trauma? Help people listen to the unspoken voice of their own bodies and to enable them to feel their “survival emotions,” of rage and terror without being overwhelmed by these powerful states.

    In what ethologist’s call “tonic immobility,” helplessness, we are “scared stiff.” In human beings, unlike animals, the “state” of temporary freezing becomes a long-term “trait.” A paralysis of will, shame, depression and self loathing following in the wake of such imposed helplessness. The mental states associated with trauma are important, but they are secondary. The body initiates and the mind follows. Hence “talking cures” that engage the intellect or even the emotions, do not reach deep enough. Trauma is not a disease, but rather a human experience rooted in survival instincts.

    When an organism perceives overwhelming mortal danger (with little or no chance of escape), the biological response is global paralysis and shutdown. Ethologists call this innate response “tonic immobility.” Humans experience this frozen state as helpless terror. Humans, in contrast to animals, frequently remain stuck in a kind of limbo, not fully reengaging in life after experiencing threat as overwhelming terror or horror.

    Rather than being a last ditch reaction to inescapable threat, paralysis becomes a “default” response to a wide variety of daily arousal. I discovered it was crucial to “titrate” (gradually access) these physiological reactions so that they are not overwhelming. I also learned that, shaking and trembling, which constitute the discharge reactions, were often so subtle as to be barely noticeable to outside observation. Often the manifestation of the discharge was a gentle muscular fasciculation or temperature change, noticeable in the hands and face.

    I was exploring how various imbalanced patterns of muscular tension and postural tone were related to symptoms – and how releasing and normalizing these entrenched patterns often led to unexpected and dramatic cures. The Alexander technique is an approach for reducing harmful postural habits that interfere with both the physical and mental states of an individual. (see The Physiological Foundations of Mental Anguish?

    At the right time, traumatized individuals are encouraged to and supported to feel and surrender into immobility/NDE states, states of profound surrender, which liberate these primordial archetypal energies, while integrating them into consciousness. In addition to the “awe-full” states of horror and terror appear to be connected to the transformative states such as awe, presence, timelessness and ecstasy.” _Peter Levine.

    Selected excerpts from “In an Unspoken Voice,” by Peter Levine, PhD.


    “What if there’d have been a system that had trauma sensitive peers who knew what it’s like and made a caring connection? I can only imagine that this tragedy could have been avoided and Adam would have chosen another path that wouldn’t have been so full of despair and violence. Perhaps in a life with choices and options and hope and not a life of trauma, psych drugs and despair, force and coercion, Adam would have chosen a different path and this tragedy could have been avoided. We have to change for a better future.”

    When will the so-called experts start listening to the long term surviviors with real-life wisdom, instead of dismissing us, as the those poor pitiful creatures? If we want to study madness, perhaps we should look closer at those academics, who have never left the classroom, and presume their education gives them insight into life and its meaning?

    Personally, I’ve been sickened too many times, by thirtysomething psychiatrists with too little life experience, telling me “I know all about your experience,” while prefering to remain in denial of their emotional projection needs, as the superior one?

    Good to see the voice of “real-life” experience voiced here Pat.

    Best wishes for 2013,

    David Bates.

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  2. I agree with you entirely. That is exactly how I see things in the light of what we know about what happened in Newtown and in Adam’s family. Bitterness, anger, dispair and being past caring spring to mind, may be revenge too.

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  3. Awesome article, as are the comments made by David Bates.

    The belief that ‘minds’ can literally be susceptible to pathology is a logical extension of the pervasive equation of ‘mind’ with bodily organ. Although tellingly there are no mind-imaging techniques (just like there are no ego-imaging or libido-imaging techniques), people still talk about the mind as if it literally exists, as if there is such an entity locatable in space, to which I always say “Alright, show it to me”.

    “Mental illness” is generally believed by people who in this regard are logically and linguistically challenged, not because of some underlying neurological defect, but because they are predisposed to such a delusion by desire, desire being the great solvent of the critical faculties (hence why delusional thought patterns make no distinctions as to whom they afflict, because desire resides within us all, and can give concrete substance to our most nonsensical fantasies).

    In reality, as Szasz once pointed out, it is a concept that occupies the same empirical and logical status as witchcraft. The proofs are each wholly subjective, the validity (be it of witchcraft or mental illness) of the diagnosis resting entirely on the authority of the one who pronounces it.

    The logic informing the determination of its existence is the same as well. Just as skin lesions and anatomical variations were deemed sufficient proof of witchcraft, delusions and disordered speech etc. are deemed sufficient proof of mental illness, regardless of the ubiquity of the foregoing amongst “normal” people.

    Yet such is the intensity and ubiquity of mental-illness mania, some people, often learned individuals, say that you “can’t define mental illness out of existence”, which is kind of like a ghosthunter saying you can’t define ghosts out of existence; kind of like Jimmy Stewart’s character in Harvey saying you can’t define my friend the giant rabbit out of existence; kind of like someone saying you can’t define the human ego out of existence. All of the foregoing are ideas and delusions, mistaken by the believers for real entities.

    It is absolutely preposterous that people are attributing these shootings to psychopathological determinants. Such people who believe these reductionistic theories are in the midst of a mania, and one of the worst evils of psychiatry is that it confers upon the maniacal masses honours (such as the honour of being designated “sane”, “rational”, and “in touch with reality”) that it is contrary to reason and experience to confer. To paraphrase Ibsen, the majority are always wrong!

    To even begin to understand human beings, one has to understand that conduct and experience crystallize around a complex of aetiological factors, and can almost never be traced to one single determinant. Once again, this is a hangover from a past supposedly more superstitious than our own, when all evils were attributed to demonological entities, entities projected on to a scapegoat.

    Psychiatry and its mistreatment of those who don’t want to or can’t fulfil the normative expectations of the society they are subject to, promotes the very problems it proffers a solution for. Through its persecution of the individual and the concomitant imposition of degrading, invidious roles, done in appeasement of the conformist majority and the family, and in consolidation of the majority ethic, as well as in promotion of its own self-interests, it sows the seeds of vengence and hatred amongst those it oppresses, hatred for psychiatry and the society for whom it is the agent of.

    What is the solution? The time-consecrated custom of scapegoating, in its medical guise, to allay the fears mobilized by events such as the recent shooting, which are seen as threatening the disintegration of the social order, the kind of events psychiatrists like Torrey and PR men like Jaffe opportunistically exploit, capitalizing on the atmosphere of fear, paranoia and anxiety in promotion of their own agenda.

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  4. Destruction of innocent life is NOT a human impulse! Devoid of any connection to the human capacity for reasoning, the horrific massacre of 20 first graders and 6 heroic women was senseless carnage. Unimaginable, unspeakable evil, that is unfathomable to a human mind, is the only way to correctly describe what was accomplished by a being who had the physical attributes of a human being.

    In the wake of this horror, many human beings are either looking to the past for a ’cause’ or looking to the future, hoping to ‘prevent’ another episode – Only the victims, the survivors, their families and the community of Newtown CT. are living in the moment of reality. To look for a ‘reason’ or to focus on ‘prevention’ is tantamount to shunning the opportunity to expand our own humanity- and it is also degrading the agonizing losses of our fellow human beings. For, the truth of the matter is no ‘reason’ can be established for shooting at close range, multiple times, the 6 and 7 year olds whose photos, I suggest everyone study with their hearts. THIS event will not occur again. The precious lives lost were each unique entities. I understand the fear of another horrific attack, but I don’t understand the lack of empathy for those who are suffering or the failure to denounce this evil act for what it was.

    I am Buddhist. The dignity and sanctity of life is what I revere and hold in the highest regard. Even more frightening than this senseless massacre of innocents is the realization that most ‘thinking’, ‘caring’ people are becoming spectators, commentators and theorists on human tragedy, rather than participants in upholding humanity itself. This monster, Adam Lantaz claims another victim each time someone endeavors to explain his actions. Logically speaking if you cite a ‘reason’ for his capacity to brutally murder innocent children, then you have sanctioned this evil, participating in a ’cause’ for more of the same. ( the formula for creating karma)

    I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I see in these commentaries a resignation that is shameful. Why is it so hard to live in the moment– to experience it with appreciation for all of our human faculties– to imagine what those children felt and the experiences of those who responded to and dealt with the carnage left by a monster? Or the parents who waited to claim their children’s bodies? Or the medical examiner who tried to make it easier for them to deal with what happened to their children– at school?

    I have practiced Nichiren Buddhism for 24 years, chanting Nam-myoho-renge -kyo and two chapters of the Lotus sutra everyday– like Marianne Pearle, who demonstrated the strength of humanity when her husband Daniel Pearle was beheaded in Pakistan. I chanted through the night of December 14th for the deceased, whose last moments were filled with terror — and for their loved ones frozen in that horrible realization . I did not attain a peaceful state through chanting/prayer, but a surge of life force, courage to face reality with hope. There is hope emerging in the honoring of those whose lives were lost– in the memorializing of irreplaceable human beings. Value is being created from such beautiful human expressions of the awareness of the sanctity of a single human life. More humanistic ways to educate, protect and nurture all of our children naturally flow from being ‘fully human’– and then we absolutely must confront the heinous lack of regulation on assault weapons in this country.

    There is a great deal of work to be accomplished. It is through this work that we remain undefeated by such evil, and transform our suffering into victories. This is the way a Buddhist fights against evil— confronting it, denouncing it, sharing in the suffering of the victims and deepening our own humanity.

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  5. When I first heard about the shooting, all I could think about was a profile I developed in college around a shooting in a daycare in Ireland. I remember the similarities I found in that and other mass shooting cases involving similar locations was that the shooter was a socially awkward person with a message. Usually, there was a history of letters or calls to newspapers, government, anyone they saw as authority, and they were repeatedly ignored. The message would become all consuming. That’s why there were never plans to escape. Their life has no meaning but being heard. They choose the location because it can’t be ignored. Daycares, Schools, Churches… Where the shock and betrayal felt by the community will assure him that his message is received. I couldn’t help but wonder if a similar motivation was involved in these.

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  6. This article was written almost three years ago now, and all of Mr. Risser’s observations about the Lanza family’s emotional neglect and abuse of Adam have been confirmed by every news report and investigation conducted by law enforcement that have been released to the public during this period of time. If the facts about Adam’s history of being victimized by his family had been publicized with the same fanfare as the facts about Adam’s deadly rampage, the villains of the Newtown story would have been Mr. and Mrs. Lanza and we would be on the brink of criminalizing bad parenting right now instead of “serious mental illness”.

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