Adolescent and Adult Mass Shooters: Trauma, Mental Health Problems, and Early Prevention

Adolescent and Adult Mass Shooters: Trauma, Mental Health Problems, and Early Prevention

Christopher A. Mallett
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-0113-9.ch012
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Understanding why people commit mass shootings in the United States is perplexing and discerning perpetrators' motivations is difficult because there have been a fairly limited number of shootings. In addition, there is incomplete research on mitigating historical evidence about the perpetrators. Thus, this chapter takes a broader approach to understanding why these shootings may have happened by reviewing the empirical literature to identify possible correlations from childhood and adolescent trauma experiences (and subsequent mental health problems) to later adult violence. This review supports a hypothesis that these experiences are potential links to explaining mass shooting outcomes. The trauma experiences that are identified to be most impactful include maltreatment, poverty, witnessing violence, domestic violence, deaths (violent and non-violent) of family and friends, and adolescent bullying.
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Mass Shootings

Mass shootings are rare events and the reasons for these tragedies are not well understood. Because so few mass shooting events have occurred, though their impact can be dramatic and disproportionate in media coverage or policy changes (Luca, Malhotra, & Poliquin, 2016), limited research on the perpetrators has been completed (Knoll & Annas, 2016). However, within such limitations, some themes have emerged.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations studied 150 mass shooter incidents and found 70 percent of the shootings took place at work or school locations, 98 percent were carried out by the person alone, 40 percent of the shooters committed suicide, and 96 percent were male (Blair & Schweit, 2014). In a more specific review of 37 targeted school violence incidents, the perpetrators had often considered or attempted suicide before the violence, had leaked their intent to peers, or engaged in behaviors that showed intent - weapon seeking, disturbing writings, odd behaviors, et al. (Vossekuil, Fein, Reddy, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2002). And in a more limited review of five mass shooters, all were found to have been bullied during childhood and socially alienated as young adults, had paranoid tendencies, and held grudges and past humiliations that evolved into violent revenge fantasies (Mullen, 2004).

Mass shooting events have been most notably found to not be the result of a single event or incident that the perpetrator experienced, but a process of troubles and difficulties over time. Typically, it is the interaction and intersection of these difficulties that impact the person to such a degree that mass shootings and murders are the outcome (Fox & DeLateur, 2014). Across the research literature, these difficulties have been identified as psychopathology (to varying degrees), traumatic life events, emotional turmoil, and unique precipitating factors for each person (for example, job firing, home violence, or substance abuse) (Declercq & Audenaert, 2011; Knoll & Meloy, 2014; Martone, Mulvey, Yang, Nemoianu, Shugarman, & Soliman, 2013). Regarding psychopathology or mental health disorders, there is not a direct link from these difficulties to mass shootings or extreme violence. However, there are common characteristics (symptoms, not diagnoses) across mass shooting perpetrators – depression, suicidality, narcissism, and paranoid outlooks. Many of these symptoms are evident during the perpetrators’ adolescent and young adult years (Knoll, 2012; Modzeleski, Freucht, Rand, Hall, Simon, Taylor, et al., 2008; Mullen, 2004).

Because of the empirical findings to date on mass shooters, this paper reviews two broad themes – childhood and adolescent trauma experiences and related mental health problems. It is postulated that these difficult younger person experiences do indeed have a lasting and cumulative (or comorbid) impact, and that in young adult and adulthood, the graver impact of other difficulties increases the risk to commit heinous crimes, including mass shootings. So by recognizing that the histories of mass shooters to date do include certain trauma histories, and that across the literature these experiences place adolescents and young adults at much greater risk of externalizing violence (a much more likely outcome for males), it is important to continue to research this possible link and to know there are prevention and intervention approaches available for younger people. Thus, this chapter first reviews the prevalence and impact of young people’s trauma experiences and related mental health disorders, followed by an overview of prevention approaches that have been found effective in addressing these problems for this population.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Seriously Emotionally Disturbed: A designation for young people who have ongoing mental health problems, often more severe and difficult to treat – including psychotic diagnoses, bi-polar disorder, and mood disorders.

Risk Factors: Experiences, traits, or issues that make an outcome (delinquency or mental health problems, for example) more likely.

Child Maltreatment: There are four official, legal categories of child maltreatment: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional (psychological) abuse, and neglect (including medical), depending on state law definitions.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A type of psychotherapy in which negative patterns of thought about the self and the world are challenged in order to alter unwanted behavior patterns or treat mood disorders such as depression.

Mental Health Disorders: A diagnosis by a mental health professional of a behavioral or mental pattern that may cause suffering or a poor ability to function in life. In the United States, diagnosis is through the use of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Trauma: A deeply distressing or disturbing experience; one that impacts the person either in the short- or long-term.

Domestic Violence: Includes emotional abuse, threatened and actual physical abuse, or sexual violence between adults, both heterosexual and same-sex partners.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A diagnosis of PTSD includes a history of trauma(s) event exposure that impacts the person and leads to avoidance, negative reactions, and changes to daily living

Functional Family Therapy: An effective intervention that attempts to modify individual behaviors and cognitions, with an emphasis on the larger family or groups as the focal area needing change rather than only on the adolescent.

Trauma-Informed Care: A treatment framework that involves understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects (psychological, social, and biological) of all types of trauma.

Behaviorally-Based Disorders: Mental health problems and disorders that are externalized; in other words, where acting out or physical violence is involved.

Poly-Victimization: The exposure to, and experience of, multiple forms of trauma and/or victimization.

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