Killers don’t just "snap"

In April 2000, one year after the Columbine killings in Littleton, Colorado, and eight years before the killings at Virginia Tech, a group of New York Times reporters and editors created a series of stories on what they called rampage killings*. In developing the story, they compiled a database of 100 of these multiple murder incidents occurring in the United States over the previous 50 years.

The examination included reviews of court cases, news coverage and mental health records, and interviews with families and friends, psychologists and victims, in an effort to glean what the people closest to each tragedy had learned. In some cases, reporters questioned the killers themselves.

What the study revealed were the great number of similarities among the cases, and not the superficial details often seen in television dramas, such as CSI. The greatest single factor binding these tragedies together was missed warning signs.

…most of the killers spiraled down a long slow slide, mentally and emotionally. Most of them left a road map of red flags, spending months plotting their attacks and accumulating weapons, talking openly of their plans for bloodshed. Many showed signs of serious mental health problems.

We’ve all heard the claim that people who are planning suicide aren’t the ones talking about it. It’s a myth.

Few people commit suicide without first letting someone else know how they feel. Those who are considering suicide give clues and warnings as a cry for help. In fact, most seek out someone to rescue them. Over 70% who do threaten to carry out a suicide either make an attempt or complete the act.

The Times study showed that rampage killers are also not taken seriously, often at great cost in lives ended and ruined. In the months and weeks before their incident of violence, the killers studied were found to have left many clues, offered hints, held conversations about their plans with friends and family, made purchases of necessary materials, and occasionally even invited others to come watch their actions. Often, their instability or their anger was noticed by people around them — several killers in the study had been given nicknames of “Crazy Pat,” “Crazy John,” and “Crazy Joe.” For many people who live a life of alienation, there is no single person who could put all these signs and clues together. Our lives are often compartmentalized today, with spouses, family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, schoolmates and others all involved in our lives, but often unaware or unacquainted with people in the other domains.

Often, those who noticed odd or disturbing or violent behavior made the assumption that there was someone else in the person’s life who was aware of the problem and would take responsibility for guiding them towards getting the help they needed. Quite often, though, even when they were referred to someone who could help — a doctor or a therapist or even a mental hospital — either the severity of their problem was not properly recognized, or the patient did not cooperate sufficiently to make any difference before being discharged. Like any other major illness, when left untreated, it doesn’t just get better spontaneously.

Forty-seven of the killers had a history of mental health problems before they killed; 20 had been hospitalized for psychiatric problems; 42 had been seen by mental health professionals…Psychiatric drugs had been prescribed at some point before the rampages to 24 of the killers, and 14 of those people were not taking their prescribed drugs when they killed. Diagnoses of mental illness are often difficult to pin down, so The Times tabulated behavior: 23 killers showed signs of serious depression before the killings, and 49 expressed paranoid ideas.

Part of the problem is that mental illness carries a terrible stigma in the US. With our culture of confession, nearly every physical disease has its society and its spokesperson, even such formerly taboo topics as Erectile Dysfunction or adult incontinence. Yet, who is the poster child for bi-polar disorder or clinical depression or mental retardation? If Britney Spears had shaved all her hair off because she was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, would she be the subject of endless cruel jibes ? Most likely not. Yet, because her actions were likely caused by some type of mental illness, we dismiss the cause and make light of the behavior.

We shouldn’t expect that every person who suffers from a mental illness is going to wind up as a rampage killer. But we need to begin understanding the signs of mental illness, and reaching out to those you know who are suffering or having trouble coping with the events and circumstances of their lives. We need to realize that when we think we see someone “snap,” we’re actually watching the culminating moments of a long and painful drama.

*Although there were four major articles in the series, most of them are in the Times archive section and downloadable for a fee. However, the article linked to here is available for free.