Well Being

Connecticut School Shooting Sparks Gun Control Debates. What About Mental Health?

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connecticut school shooting ryan lanza

[Update: Ryan Lanza was mistakenly identified as the gunman in the Connecticut school shooting by police, but the shooter has been identified as his younger brother, Adam Lanza, who has a history of mental illness. This post has been corrected to reflect the update.]

This morning's Connecticut school shooting has already been called the country's second-worst, with the most recent death count at 27 total, including 18 children. And despite White House Press Secretary Jay Carney‘s insistence that today isn't the day to discuss gun control, many are discussing why the shooter–who is believed to be a young man named Adam Lanza–was ever in possession of weapons in the first place. But one topic that's, regrettably, missing from all the talk is mental health: Wherever you stand on gun laws, the Newtown school shooting–and the overwhelming number of massacres that have occurred recently in the U.S.–makes it hard not to wonder what's going wrong with our country's mental health that this is even happening.

News about the shootings is still unfolding, and many facts are unconfirmed, but the death toll at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut keeps creeping up. Most recently, the Connecticut Post reported that 29 are dead, including 22 children–making it the second most fatal school shooting in the country's history. CNN reports that the gunman–who is dead–is Adam Lanza, a young man in his twenties who is believed to be the son of a teacher at the school, and whose father was found dead when police searched his house today after the shootings. Reports suggest that the shootings happened in a concentrated area–tragically, in a Kindergarten classroom–but police aren't confirming death tolls or details of the scene until all families are informed.

As facts slowly trickly in, many news sources, websites, Twitter and Facebook are already on fire with debates over gun control and gun laws. Infographics depicting the deadliest U.S. shootings and facts about U.S. and international gun fatalities are spreading around like wildfire. So, of course, are debates over whether it's appropriate to even talk about politics at all in light of the day's tragic news for so many families, but gun laws are apt to be one of the month's biggest topics of conversation regardless.

But the knee-jerk reaction to news like the Connecticut school shooting–before you've had a chance to get angry about gun control or sad about the families who just lost their children in the middle of the holidays–is just “these people are crazy.” Without knowing anything about a gunman like Adam Lanza, it's obvious that he had mental health issues to be capable of committing such violence. So why not discuss the decline in mental health in the U.S., instead of just talking about access to weapons?

We're far from knowing anything about Adam Lanza's motivations or mental state, but we hope that we learn more. Because with or without guns–we've got problems. After Jared Loughner shot Gabby Giffords in Arizona, Mother Jones reported on madness and mass shootings, pointing out that “Mass shootings generate sensational media coverage, yet most media have failed to connect the dots with regard to mental health.”

They did their own work to “connect the dots” between mass shootings–beyond stringing together gun statistics–analyzing 61 mass shootings in the United States that have happened in the last 30 years:

No less than 80 percent of the perpetrators in these 61 cases obtained their weapons legally. Acute paranoia, delusions, and depression were rampant among them, with at least 35 of the killers committing suicide on or near the scene. (Seven others died in police shootouts they had little hope of surviving, regarded by some experts as “suicide by cop.”) And according to additional research we completed recently, at least 38 of them displayed signs of mental health problems prior to the killings. (That data is now included in the interactive map linked above.)

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Could he or any of the others have been stopped in advance? It's an exceptionally challenging question, one whose answer must take into account civil liberties, medical ethics, the proliferation of millions of guns in the United States, and our nation's politically charged patchwork of ever-loosening gun laws.

But if we dont ask these kinds of questions, we're losing an opportunity to make our country a safer–and happier–place to live.