Oslo and Other Shootings: The Debate on Mental health

Auburn, Washington State. A lone gunman opens fire in a local casino, wounding 7.

Grand Prairie, Texas. One man draws a gun at a children’s birthday party at a roller rink. 6 dead, 4 wounded.

Oslo, Norway. After setting off several car bombs near the Prime Minister’s office, a solo perpetrator makes his way to a Labour Party Youth Camp on Utøya Island with an assault rifle. 76 people dead, 96 wounded.

It’s the same story that’s been repeated for years. A lone X attacks Y armed with a Z. A dead and B wounded. Solve for X. We just had three of them in the space of a week, and it wasn’t even a full moon. The aftermath is usually the same. The candlelight vigils, the scholarships and charities set up in the victims’ names, not to mention the filing away at civil liberties to prevent future attacks. There might be some debate over the death penalty, if the attacker didn’t have the courtesy to end his own life. For all the anguish that these attacks cause, very little is done to tackle their only common thread. I’m talking, of course, about Mental Health.

These shooters are crazy. It’s not really a debate. They act alone or in small groups. They are often described as quiet and isolated. There are sometimes manifestos, blog posts, and youtube videos discovered after the fact showing just how bad their mental health was.

Why can’t we stop them at this stage, before they take out scores of people with them?

The short answer is the Law. If we could just call up the men in the white coats on someone, it would infringe on a host of civil liberties that make a modern society possible.

However, there is a lot more that we could do for our collective mental health that doesn’t involve Nurse Ratched or lobotomies. We could be checking up on people, making sure they have a connection with the community. We can identify problems and either speak to the person or contact someone who could help. Even perfectly mentally healthy people could get checked up once a year to establish a mental health baseline.

The problem with this is that there is no polite way to do it. You can talk to Miss Manners, Ann Landers, or Dan Savage, if we want to try to get people any kind of mental health, you committing the ultimate dinner party faux pax. It’s not even as simple as a stigma against the mentally ill. No one looks twice if you go to a physician, but If you see a therapist, you are immediately sick until proven healthy! Even if you swallow your pride and decide to bring a fruit basket to the overgrown house down the street, how can you keep from embarrassing yourself? How do THEY keep from embarrassing themselves?

These random acts of violence are becoming a standard hazard in industrialized nations. We’ve focused so much on promoting individuality over society that we have no tools to keep people from shooting up a mall if they really want to. Mental health is still a poorly understood field, but we can’t just cower in fear waiting for the next attack. We have to make our understanding a priority and establish a new social framework. New manners will be chartered and polite boundaries will be redrawn. I’m not sure what form this new society will take, but the debate has to start now.