Why No One Believes Us When We Say Americans With Mental Illnesses Are Not Representative Of Mass Murderers

Two of the ten deadliest killings were known to involve shooters with mental disorders. It was suspected in a third.

(3-5-18) The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida was horrific and also different for me.

After the shootings at Virginia Tech, in Tucson, Aurora, Newtown and the Washington Navy Yard, I penned Op Eds and did radio/ television interviews during which I spoke about how waiting for someone to become dangerous was foolish and the inadequacies of our current mental health care system.

Editors and reporters were eager to print and broadcast my comments.

This time I tried a different tactic. Armed with a 2016 study, Mass Shootings and Mental Illness by James L. Knoll IV, M.D. George D. Annas, M.D., I explained that Americans with serious mental illnesses were not responsible for a majority of mass murders and, in fact, were much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

This is what nearly every advocate is expected to say. Perhaps that is why none of the media outlets, with whom I regularly deal, expressed much interest in my argument. (A person is about 15 times more likely to be struck by lightning in a given year than to be killed by a stranger with a diagnosis of schizophrenia or chronic psychosis.)

With the exception of journalist Tim Williams who interviewed me for NewsTalk Florida, I don’t think any of the others believed me.

A Washington Post/ABC poll found – as Slate put it in its headline –  “More Americans Blame Mass Shootings on Mental Health Than on Gun Laws.”  

“77 percent, said better mental health monitoring and treatment would have averted Parkland.”

This is the prevailing attitude even though repeated studies prove otherwise. Why?

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The Third Question After A Mass Shooting: Where Were The Parents?


(3-2-18) From My Files Friday:  Whenever a mass shooting committed by a young person happens, the third question asked is about his parents. (The first two are generally about whether the shooter had a mental illness and talk about gun control.)

Alleged Parkland, Florida, school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, and his younger brother were adopted by Roger and Lynda Cruz. Roger died when the boys were young, leaving Lynda to rear her boys as a single mother. She first called the police about Cruz when he was 10 years old. It was one of dozens of calls during the next decade. Lynda died last November.

I’ve read articles blaming her. They are similar to comments after other mass murders, especially those that involve a young shooter with a mental illness. Surely the parents knew. They could have done something. They are to blame.

I don’t know enough about Nikolas Cruz to speak specifically about his childhood, but complaints about his mother reminded me of an Op Ed that I wrote for USA Today in 2011 after Jared Loughner shot U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others in a Tucson suburb. In that case, Loughner had a mental illness and there were warning signs.

Don’t Blame Jared Loughner’s Parents, published in USA TODAY, 1-14-11

By Pete Earley
What’s wrong with Jared Loughner’s parents? Why didn’t they do something? They must have known. Just look at the photograph of the Tucson shooting suspect. That grin. They should have raised him better.

These are comments I’ve heard and read on the Internet about Randy and Amy Loughner, whose son has been charged with shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 12 others, and killing six bystanders.

It’s unlikely the parent’s  statement — that they “don’t understand why this happened”— will soothe the criticism and public anger aimed at them. But as the parent of an adult son with a severe mental illness who has been arrested, I can sympathize with the Loughners and testify that there are reasons why a parent can be caught off guard.

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Kevin’s Recovery: Getting The Tools That He Needed, Now Working As A Peer Specialist

(2-27-18) In this final snippet conducted by SAMHSA’s Gains Center, I describe how horrible mental illnesses are and how fortunate I am that my son Kevin is doing well today.

What helped him?

He finally accepted his illness and was given the tools that he needed – housing, a job, a purpose, and hope. I talk about recovery and note that we still don’t know how to help everyone recover, some don’t and often end their own lives, but we must have hope that someday everyone will. There was a time when I thought Kevin wouldn’t get better. Now he is doing fantastic and I am grateful that he allows me to continually share his story.

(Please note, that while my mind was telling me that Kevin had gained 20 pounds on medication, my mouth said he had gained 200 pounds. An embarrassing mistake. I apologize Kevin and want everyone to know that you did not gain 200 pounds!) Thanks to SAMHSA’s Gains Center for interviewing me.

Changing The Culture Of Law Enforcement: It’s About Us, Not “Those People.”

(2-26-18) In this third, two-minute  snippet produced by SAMHSA’s Gains Center, I discuss how putting a “human face” on individuals who are in a mental health crisis helps change the culture in police departments. It is not about “those people.” It is about our children, our parents, our friends, and our neighbors – it is about us.

Tomorrow: How my son is doing today.

Being Taken Away In A Police Car Suggests You’ve Done Something Wrong!

(2-23-18) In this two-minute SAMHSA Gains Center vignette, I describe how stigmatizing it is to be transported to a mental facility by the police, rather than in an ambulance or by a family member. I realize there are times when someone is so psychotic that calling the police is necessary, but it is always less traumatic for family members and a person, who is in crisis, if they can avoid police involvement.

Tomorrow: How important it is to change the culture at police departments.

Two Markedly Different Outcomes: Tasers vs Compassion. I Talk About My Son’s Encounters With Police

(2-22-18) SAMHSA’s GAINS Center recently interviewed me about my family’s story and the need for mental health reform. In this first of four short segments – each 2 to 4 minutes long – I was asked to describe two much different encounters that my son had with law enforcement and how handcuffing someone who is sick and transporting them in a police squad car is traumatic.

As always, I appreciate my son’s willingness to allow me to share our story. Thank you Kevin.

(My reference to one-in-four fatal police shootings involving an individual with a mental illness is based on a Washington Post survey. The Treatment Advocacy Center puts the percentage much higher, writing “at least half of the people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.”

Tomorrow: In a perfect world, how should someone who is in crisis be transported to a treatment facility.