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No Easy Answers

March 1, 2008
by Douglas J. Edwards, Editor-in-Chief
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When I sat down to write this month's editorial, I knew I wanted to talk about the shootings at Northern Illinois University on Valentine's Day. Yet as I tried to pull my thoughts together, I was overwhelmed by the number of issues involved. Despite several rewrites and consultation with my colleagues, I realized that I was not going to be able to put this tragedy into a neat, digestible context. I think this reflects the enormity of the challenge our society faces in trying to prevent such violence.

We still are learning about the shooter, Steven Kazmierczak, and as of this writing the motives for his rampage remain unclear. Some evidence suggests that Kazmierczak had a history of mental illness. As much as we try, we probably never will come up with satisfactory answers for what drove Kazmierczak, Seung-Hui Cho, and too many others to commit mass murder. Some (such as the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a Scientology outfit) think they have the answer, claiming that psychiatric medications had a prominent role in causing Kazmierczak to go on a killing spree (CCHR views psychiatry as an “industry of death”). This argument tries to provide a quick answer for a tragedy that belies logic.

We can take long-overdue steps to try to prevent such violence. Our society can make meaningful, long-term investments in our mental healthcare system. At the same time, we must remind the public that people with mental illness are not inherently violent (a message made harder to deliver after the Virginia Tech and NIU shootings). We can strengthen our gun-ownership laws to keep weapons out of the hands of those who shouldn't have them, and that includes some people with and without mental illness. And our communities can make crisis-intervention services more widely known and available.

In addition, we must not become hopeless. Of course, this won't be the last mass shooting (by the time you read this, there might have been another). All of the mental healthcare in the world might not stop someone with murderous intentions. And people will find weapons if they really want them—no matter what the law says. But we can be confident that stronger support and increased funding for mental healthcare and gun restrictions will have an impact. We might not be able to prevent every shooting, whether or not by a person with a mental illness, but we can take steps to make our communities safer.

P.S. I want to hear your thoughts on this and other topics I write about. Visit my new blog at http://www.behavioral.net and join the conversation.

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