(Note: The following commentary is virtually identical to one that I prepared 18 months ago in the wake of the shooting tragedy in Tucson, Arizona.)
Last weekend, a tragedy of national proportions occurred in Aurora, Colorado. Twenty-four-year-old James Holmes repeatedly fired an assault rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol into a group of movie-goers attending the premier night showing of a new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. Twelve people were killed outright, including a 6 year old girl; 58 more were wounded, 9 seriously. Urgently, we need to understand and act on this very sad event so that a similar event does not occur in another setting with other participants. Disconcertingly, this event is remarkably similar to the shootings that occurred in Tucson, Arizona, just 18 months ago.
Based on CNN media reports and elsewhere, a picture emerges of James Holmes as an extremely bright and talented college student who developed a serious mental illness shortly after he began graduate school at the University of Colorado. Allegedly, he had taken on the identity of the Joker, an evil character in the Batman film series. Over time, he apparently spent progressively larger amounts of time in isolation and delusional thinking. A critical question can be raised as to why he did not receive appropriate mental health care.
Clearly, it will not be productive to point fingers at school officials, at fellow students, at friends, or at his family. We cannot know their personal motivations, what they actually noticed, or why they did not intervene. Rather, let’s look at what could have happened, but didn’t.
We must look at two things. First, how can we give people the knowledge and the skills to take action when they encounter a family member, friend, or acquaintance who is obviously descending into a mental illness? Second, how can we assure that appropriate and effective mental health services are actually available in the community?
Developing Knowledge and Skills
Before someone will feel secure and confident to intervene, including friends, classmates, teachers, family members or other community members, they must have an appropriate understanding of the signs and symptoms of mental disorders; they must know how to respond; and they must know what resources are available to assist them. Most people have received no training in any of these areas; in fact, most people are unaware of current mental health treatment resources available in their own communities. Obviously, we must do something about this.
As part of health education in high school and college, every student should be informed about the signs and symptoms of mental illness and the types of helping responses that are appropriate. Clearly, appropriate responses will vary depending on whether a person is suicidal, depressed, violent, incoherent, remote, etc. As a major part of this training, when in any doubt, students should be taught to reach out for help to other authority figures—teachers, counselors, school authorities, other adults, etc. Such training will do much to combat the culture of silence and inaction that frequently surrounds such encounters.