In the 23 years since the Columbine High School massacre, the school shooting in an affluent, formerly unknown suburb of Denver, Colorado (my hometown) that put school shootings on the map, gun laws have become looser and looser despite victims’ efforts for stricter laws. SCOTUS ruled yesterday to continue the expansion of gun rights exactly one month after the Uvalde shooting that claimed 19 lives, most of them elementary school students. While this post doesn’t directly address gun laws, it’s about another topic related to mass violence: the increasing demand by the public for “expanded access” to “mental health services” as a way to stop mass shootings.
I won’t go over the growing list of most recent mass shootings in America, likely because, by the time I think I’m done, there will be another one. The reason I’d bet on it is that, on the day of the shooting at a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma earlier this month, which was perpetrated by a man who’d been released from surgery the day of the Uvalde shooting in Texas, I was sitting with a friend at a restaurant thinking to myself that Oklahoma hadn’t had a shooting in quite a while that I know of and, running down the list of places mass shootings have happened, I didn’t think we’d had a shooting at a hospital. An hour after I got home, I heard the news of the Tulsa shooting.
One might argue that thoughts like the ones I was having are quite morbid, and that would be part of the reason I’m writing this. The friend I was having lunch with the day of the Tulsa shooting was in Oklahoma City when the bombing happened in 1995, close enough to feel every floor of the federal building collapse. I am from Littleton, Colorado—everyone I’ve ever talked to after 1999 knows what I’m going to say next—where the Columbine High School shooting happened; I was less than ten minutes away in middle school and I didn’t realize until 20 years later that my peers and I were the first kids to experience the school lockdown. Provoked by the shooting in Buffalo followed quickly by the shooting in Texas, my friend and I were discussing what it’s like to be so close to a famous true-crime incident and how it colors the way you think forever, in ways you don’t realize until decades later.
I was old enough in 1999 to remember everything about what I experienced on April 20, 1999, but I was not old enough to understand hardly any of it, and there was much about the Columbine shootings that, despite things like being best friends with the daughter of the chief of police of Littleton at the time, being taken to the memorials every year I remained in Littleton afterward, attending the protest gathering of the NRA rally they decided to hold in Denver ten days after the shootings, and knowing two of the Columbine victims, I didn’t learn or really understand the implications until recently (as in, more than two decades after the shooting). Like the fact that it wasn’t “supposed” to be a shooting; it was “supposed” to be a bombing a la Oklahoma City, just four years prior at that point. The media, the adults around me and, increasingly, my peers, were firing blame in all directions: violent movies (The Matrix was still in theaters at the time of the Columbine shootings), first-person shooter video games, bad parenting, psych meds—the discussion was not just about gun control and mental health.
My point is not to argue about gun legislation but to marvel at just how complex, nuanced, and broad the conversations were after Columbine, and just how narrow—and honestly vicious and abusive—the conversations about mass shootings are today.
For example, the only place online that I could talk about my misgivings about the demand for expanded access to mental health “services” for kids as a response to the increase in mass shootings without being verbally assaulted was in a private group dedicated to talking about the Columbine shootings. That’s probably because one of the students who was badly injured in the shootings initially sued the manufacturer of the drug that was found in the system of one of the shooters at the time of his death, alleging the drug’s dangerous effects on the thoughts and feelings of the person taking it. In other words, the black-box warnings on an increasing number of medications that reads “may cause suicidal or homicidal thoughts.” And yet, even when drug companies openly admit that their products may in fact cause murderous thoughts, our culture not only fails to include this fact, as well as the known (and the fact that there are unknown) risks of psych meds in the conversation about expanded access to mental health care, but attacks and silences anyone who even asks if we can take a look at the possibility that they might play a role.
The Stockholm Syndrome to Big Pharma is wild. Prescriptions of psychiatric medications, including to children, are skyrocketing even as access to talk therapy (as problematic as THAT is as well) is in some ways decreasing, and mass shootings seem to be increasing. Of course there are many factors that play into mass murder, but the fact remains that I still have heard no good reason for why I’m instantly shut down almost everywhere online and in this culture when I ask the question about what role products that are labeled with warnings that they may cause thoughts about murder might play in mass murder. I’m not saying there definitely is a connection—there may well not be—but we can’t even have a reasonable discussion about it. In my experience, the conversation is instantly shut down by defensive people on medication or overzealous mental health “advocates” with claims like “I’ve been on such-and-such antidepressant for years and I’ve never thought about killing anyone” and “mental illness does not cause violence.” I agree, and despite the problematic use of the term “mental illness,” which is not defined, so does at least one scientific study. Why, then, do we think that expanding access to mental health services will reduce mass violence?
Because it’s not about reducing anything, but rather expanding the market for pharmaceutical products. You don’t get to have it both ways: you can’t claim that kids getting easier access to mental health treatment has anything to do with reducing school shootings and also that mental illness does not cause violence. “Easier access” to mental health treatment is likely to translate to getting more kids in front of more prescribers to produce more lifetime customers, with the added benefit of starting them even earlier so they’ll be with Big Pharma for longer.
Violence is just a convenient proxy for Big Pharma to force markets open for itself where there are not legitimate ones. Whether medicating children definitely produces school shooters or not, expanding access to mental health “treatment” as a way to reduce mass shootings is like asking a thief to draw the floor plans to your house. They may get the job done, at least by all appearances, but the only benefit they’re concerned about is their own.
What makes all of this even worse is that those who are calling for easier mental health branding—I mean, “access” and “treatment”—probably sincerely believe that mental health treatment, whatever they mean by it, will actually help. They are not in on the “secret” that the mental health industry, the psychiatry industry, and the psychology industry use “helping” and “caring” about mental and emotional wellness as marketing schemes only. Their business models would not be profitable nor sustainable if they were truly “helping” people, which, of course, they and their industries (rather than the individuals receiving said “treatment”) get to define and apply further and further across the board. They think that, if only these troubled people who open fire on masses of strangers or their peers got “help,” they wouldn’t go through with their murderous plans.
Charles Whitman, also known as the Texas Tower Sniper, sought consultations with multiple doctors and psychiatrists because he knew something was wrong, even up to three months before he opened fire from a tower on the University of Texas at Austin campus on August 1, 1966, killing 17 and wounding 31 others. He requested an autopsy be done on him after his death to see if anything biological may have contributed to his obsessive homicidal thoughts; a tumor was found in his brain after police shot and killed him to end his shooting spree; there was disagreement among doctors about whether the tumor contributed significantly to his actions. The point is that he sought help multiple times from multiple people, including the mental health system, because he himself knew something was wrong.
On the other end of the spectrum, Columbine shooter Eric Harris wrote in detail in his journals about how “mankind needs to die” and gushed angrily about his desire to “kill mankind.” Even if talking about how mankind being alive makes him feel would have helped Eric sufficiently process his murderous rage, how far would mental health treatment need to be “expanded” to get him to a) attend in the first place and b) tell the truth. I realize that this is just one story (and, to be sure, the Columbine shooting remains singular in history for multiple reasons, not least because it’s the only one that involved two shooters) but, if there are statistically significant numbers of would-be mass shooters being detected and prevented from carrying out their plans by the mental health system while also not being harmed by the system, I have yet to see them.
This is not intended to be a debate about whether some people are savable or helpable or not. Nor is this about definitive conclusions on any side. This is about the sloppy, contradictory, too-easy “logic” of the widespread and uncritical call for expanded mental health services/treatment/access after (yet another) mass shooting. What the widespread demand for expanded access to mental health services tells me is that the majority of the culture still thinks traditional mental health services are good, or at least potentially helpful, which means they haven’t truly thought through the consequences of more and more people, especially young people, coming under the grips of it.
If ‘mental illness’ doesn’t cause violence, yet we need to expand mental health services as one way of reducing mass shootings, what problem are we trying to solve? After Columbine, we talked about a lot of possible culprits, but we did not talk about expanding mental health services. As I mentioned, we in fact talked about, among other things, reducing a certain aspect of mental health services, that of medication—which many people claiming to be advocates get almost literally up in arms about the nanosecond it’s suggested. Expanding mental health services would probably not reduce the use of psych meds.
“Expand access to mental health care” sounds like a nice rallying cry, though. It’s tough to argue with on the surface; you sound like you just want kids to toughen up and people to fend for themselves. The thing is that, when it came to Columbine, I did just that. I didn’t talk to any adult about Columbine until I was an adult (so at least seven years after the shootings) and the only time I talked to any of my friends about it when I was still a kid was the day it happened. We got released from hours of lockdown (that word was used in retrospect; during the event, we were not once told that “lockdown” was what was happening) and my friend’s mom came to pick us up. We walked into her house and saw the part of the live coverage that is now known as “the boy in the window”: Patrick Ireland struggling to escape from the second-floor library window that had been shot out and falling into the arms of the Denver SWOT team, who were standing on top of an ambulance. We had no idea what was going on; at one point, my friend recognized the aquamarine glass of Columbine High School but we quickly ruled that out because “they don’t have guns at schools.”
It wasn’t optimal to be confused about Columbine for years and to be unaware of its deep effects on my thinking and how I saw people, the world, myself, and the future. But, as an adult a generation later, I’ve started to understand for myself the shootings at Columbine and my proximity to them as a seventh-grader in spite of the years of therapy I had. In fact, I had “easy” access to mental health care my entire life and literally none of the five therapists I saw ever once asked me about Columbine when I mentioned I grew up in Littleton or when I said things that I am realizing now were conclusions I drew during lockdown on April 20th, 1999. I am just one person, of course, and there are survivors of the shootings, including people who were shot and horribly wounded but lived that day, that have mentioned benefiting from therapy in their 20-year-anniversary interviews.
But that’s a different scenario than postulating therapists as preventers of violence. Given that there are a growing number of survivors of the mental health industrial complex, therapy as a one-size-fits-all prophylactic for mass shootings is more wishful thinking (largely out of ignorance of how the mental health system actually works) than useful suggestion. But this would include the ability to have a candid, respectful conversation about the dangers of psych meds without canceling, shutting down or ridiculing people we disagree with, and we are farther away from that than we were in the days after Columbine.
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.