The Colorado Shootings and Mental Illness: As a Nation we still don’t get it!


We don’t know enough about the mind of the alleged Colorado shooter,  James Holmes,  to determine if he has a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or if he was driven by some narcissistic, anti-social desire to hurt others and become infamous.

But as the father of an adult son with bipolar disorder, who has been arrested and who once fixated on a movie during a psychotic break, I’ve watched the public reaction to the horrific shootings in Aurora — and earlier ones in Tuscon and on the Virginia Tech University campus — with trepidation. As a nation, we are stumped by mental illnesses.

Some observations.

* These awful tragedies should turn attention on our nation’s woefully inadequate mental health care system. Instead, the spotlight always focuses on gun control. A possible reason is because people are afraid of being sympathetic or being viewed as excusing the acts of the gunman if they discuss mental illness. But how can we prevent future shootings if we don’t question why Seung-Hui Cho fell through the cracks in Virginia after he was declared “a danger to himself and others” or why Jared Lee Loughner’s schizophrenia went untreated? We ignore the elephant in the room — our nation’s failed mental health care system — at our own peril.

*The gunman’s parents will be blamed by the public even though our current civil rights laws make it extremely difficult for family members to force anyone to see a doctor or seek medical treatment if they have a mental disorder and act oddly. By law, we protect the right of an individual to be “crazy.” Yet, we become outraged when a Cho or Loughner kill and maim.

*Although science can’t tell us the causes of most mental disorders, severe ones such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, are thought to have biological and genetic underpinnings and are not the fault of those who get sick.  “In a given year approximately one quarter of American adults are diagnosable for one or more mental disorders,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health.  Despite the fact that mental illness may strike anyone, having a mental disorder is still seen as a personal character flaw and rarely sways public opinion or influences sentencing. Polls consistently show the public believes the insanity offense should be eliminated because it is a dodge used by murderers to avoid prison. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s rants were driven by paranoid schizophrenia. Yet, he is serving life without parole in a federal prison — not in a mental hospital receiving treatment — for three murders. We understandably want to hold killers responsible for their actions even when they are mentally unhinged.  This has lead to hair-splitting interpretations in our legal system. If the accused understands that murdering another human being is wrong, he can be sentenced to death even if his own mind was telling him at the time of the murder that the policeman who stopped him was an alien intent on harming him.

*Because these mass shooting appear to be unpredictable, we feel helpless to prevent them. We shouldn’t. The shootings in Tucson and at Virginia Tech could and should have been prevented. Family members and university professors were alarmed by the antics of Jared Loughner and Seung-Hui Cho but were stymied either by the “dangerous to self or others” legal standard for intervention or by a lack of responsive community mental health care. Future shootings can be stopped with improved laws and services.

*The Aurora murders not only destroyed and injured innocent movie-goers, causing great pain and suffering, they also further stigmatized persons with mental disorders. A poster already being circulated on the Internet belittles mental illnesses, dismissing them as a flimsy excuse for Holmes’ actions. It is important to remember that persons with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than to harm others and that Loughner, Cho, and possibly Holmes, are not representative.

Mike Wallace, Terry Bradshaw, Jane Pauley, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Catherine Zeta Jones, Carrie Fisher, Margot Kidder, Patty Duke, Kay Redfield Jamison and millions of other ordinary Americans, including my son, are the real face of mental illnesses. None of them has killed anyone and they should not be stigmatized and their illnesses should not be trivialized  because of the violence of a few.

Nor should anyone assume that our hearts are not breaking because of these senseless murders.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Amen and thank you!!

  2. Good stuff Pete!!

  3. Clough1055 says

    Enjoyed you piece.  It puts things into perspective.

  4. Pete,

    I have been awaiting your reaction and have had a feeling you would mention the danger to self/others standard for involuntary treatment, citing its removal as something that could have prevented a tragedy such as this. This, however, is not a case that can be used to show why the standards are flawed: Colorado has AOT based upon the presence of grave disability and need. http : // www . treatment advocacy center . org /legal-resources/ in-your-state/ colorado So, in fact, does Arizona — indeed, their criteria is even more liberal. http : // www  . treatmentadvocacycenter  .  org  /  index.php?  option=com_content & view=article&id=91&Itemid=133 (Remove spaces) Thus, out of the three mass shootings you noted, only one of them occurred in a state that did not allow for involuntray treatment based upon need.

    In light of that, how can you, and other AOT advocates, continue to claim that if we reformed the standard, things would change and these killings would not occur? In Arizona and Colorado, they did change the standard — they listened to the words of those who claimed it was the right thing to do — and, yet, these tragedies still occurred. This is a fact, a challenge, I have not seen addressed by the pro-AOT crowd. Rather, they simply either do not comment at all or, as you have done, simply call for more involuntary treatment. You know that I respect you, even when I disagree with you; however, if you are going to use this and the Arizona shootings as a rallying call for a change in legal standard, you have to justify why those cases prove a need. 

    The right to one’s own body is too basic of a right to call to be stripped with less.


    • concerned mom says

       I think there are many things that can be done to safeguard society without infringing on the right of mentally ill.  Better gun laws would have caught this person, more follow up with students who need help, more treatment instead of incarceration for mentally ill offenders.  It would really help if families could get help instead of having their children put in jail (this is what happened when I tried to get help.  Consequently, I will not call 911.  3 days is not enough to really help anyway.)

      •  I concur with you, concerned mom; there are, indeed, numerous mechanisms and actions that may have prevented these tragedies. Gun control/regulation is a significant one and, contrary to what Pete suggests, it is not one that is talked about because we do not want to address mental illness; it is talked about because it plays a role and not just a role in mass violence or violence committed by those with mental illness. A greater student support structure — something that, while present on undergraduate campuses, is a rarity in the graduate world — accompanied by education on mental health complications would have gone a long way and would still for all struggling students. Very few mentally ill persons start out with no insight or control — it’s typically a progression and, had the warning signs of that progression been noted, things may have gone better. Increased services are always a must, though it is impossible to comment as to if that would have helped in this situation without more information.

        The point of my post was that it was not a lack of assisted/involuntary outpatient treatment — which is, by its nature, stripping someone with a mental illness of the right to control what substances, some of which have the ability to cause toxic side effects, are put in their own body — that caused or contributed to these tragedies. My point was that using them to advocate for a law when those cases do not actually help validate the need for the law is rather unacceptable. AOT was there — its presence did not save lives/

    • Erika,

      There is much about this case that we have yet to learn, but bringing up the topic of mental illness is never a bad idea considering the convoluted understanding/misunderstanding of it.  You mention Colorado having a better involuntary treatment policy, but I might point out that Holmes was not from CO.  He recently moved there from San Diego, CA.  He was not surrounded by family or friends, the people most apt to know when someone is a potential danger to themselves/someone else.  From what we know he was a loner and had little to no association with anyone while he lived there.  If any of his professors saw anything questionable in him during the year he attended classes, they were probably more discouraged by the potential backlash of liability in the instance they were wrong.

      Who’s to say Holmes’ parents hadn’t sought help at one point or another during his life and learned there really was nothing they could do but wait until he not only became a threat to himself or others, but until he acted on it?  Who’s to say Holmes ever displayed any signs of mental illness Prior to this?  Sure there are rumors that his mother wasn’t surprised, but I haven’t seen her given the opportunity to speak for herself.  It very well could be that the stress of the neuroscience program was straw that did it, like has been the case in so many others.  Regardless, a tragedy happened and the blame machine is trumping the opportunity to learn yet again.  The fact that Holmes is alive, may allow the conversation to continue further than the rotating gun control / violent movie / music / parents circle it always tends to get stuck in, but that’s assuming we can see past our rage clouded vision for a change.  The involuntary treatment is but one part of Pete’s argument, the bigger message here is the need to educate and learn.  Perhaps someone will hear us.  

  5. Society has had many chances to examine incidents like this, but unfortunately the need to blame always trumps the opportunity to learn.  As a result of Aurora, we’re already getting the same ol’ tired gun control argument.  Add to that the propaganda surrounding violent movies and the Public ostracizing of Holmes’ parents, and we’ve got ourselves a very familiar media circus going on around us.  Warner Bro’s has ordered an already finished but unreleased Period piece to cut a scene depicting a theater shooting that’s pivotal to it’s plot . . . opting to reshoot and alter a piece of art as opposed to pushing back the release to a more suitable hour.  Maybe we should go back and edit ALL films that contain a similar premise, Inglorious Basterds comes to mind, surely censoring anything that might trigger the memory of such a tragedy will make it go away and never, ever, happen again.  The tragedy is horrendous, but the true crime is the way “we” ultimately process and handle it, resolving nothing, and effecting those people, places, and things unassociated directly with any of it.

    Hat’s off to you Pete, your struggle with educating the rest of us about the reality of mental illness does not fall on deaf ears . . . if only we could get the media to pay more attention to someone like you and less time riding the merry-go-round, we may actually see progress one of these days.

  6. Thank you for your transparency and vulnerability. Thank you for emphasizing te need for compassion for the mentally ill. That is what Jesus would have done – I think.

  7. Nicley put, as a person who deals family members that have mental illness and every day armed criminals who are sane. Its nice to see some one try to distinguish between the two.