Mental health experts seek clues behind killers

Mental health experts seek clues behind killers
A Newtown police car parked outside the command post at the Sandy Hookfire department following the deadly school massacre that took place at the Sandy Hook Elementary School Dec. 14, 2012.
  • Spate of recent shootings involved men in early 20s.
  • Conn. Shooter believed to suffer from personality disorder.
  • About 25 percent of population has some form of mental health illness, expert says.
  • PHOENIX — In the past two years, mass shootings in Arizona, Colorado and Oregon were tied to men ages 22 to 24.

    And now, 20-year-old Adam Lanza is behind the Connecticut elementary-school shooting Friday that left 20 small children and six adults dead. Lanza, the 27th victim, killed himself at the scene.

    “What’s driving these young men, what’s the driving factor?” Asks Dr. Shareh Ghani, chief medical officer with the Magellan Health Services of Arizona. “Doing a root-cause analysis in these younger males is not an extraordinary request.”.

    Ghani wonders if there needs to be more screening done in schools for mental health problems. So does Jim Frost, president of National Alliance on Mental Illness for Arizona.

    Lanza was believed to suffer from a personality disorder, said a law-enforcement official who was briefed on the investigation but was not authorized to discuss it.

    Mental health experts in Arizona said discussion of Lanza’s mental state is an opportunity to talk about the need for better mental health preventive services.

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    It is no surprise that mass shootings in the past two years involved young adult men, Frost said. There is a life trigger at age 18 for some people who have trouble coping, he said. For some men, it becomes an act of aggression, an act of violence.

    The young-adult years of 18 to 25 can be extremely difficult, said Chip Coffey, director of therapy services for St. Luke’s Behavioral Health Center in Phoenix.

    “You’re coming out of high school, there is family stress to go to college, so maybe there are family expectations you aren’t meeting,” Coffey said.

    And, unfortunately for some, there is undiagnosed mental illness, he said. “There is still such a stigma attached to all of mental health. But about 25 percent of us have some mental health illness. We’ve been taught to be ashamed.”.

    Frost urges more preventive measures, suggesting that more emphasis be placed on caring for emotional health, starting in grade schools, adding staff who can provide psychological services.

    After so many deaths and so much drive-by media attention to the subject of mental health, it’s time for people to dig in for the long haul, Frost said. Too many people having a hard time coping are told to just shrug it off, told to “be a man” and get on with life, Frost said.

    If it turns out that Lanza did have a mental illness, Frost predicts the reaction will break into two corners.

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    “There is the side that believes that these people should be punished to the nth degree, and then the side that says this person is sick and should be treated,” Frost said.

    “Obviously, both sides have a good point. If we start to address those issues, then the idea of prevention will grow from that. We need to try to bring those two sides together. Maybe if this young man (Lanza) had been spotted sooner, this could have been prevented.”.

    Friends and family members need to have more face-to-face time and be alert for possible problems, mental-health experts say.

    “Families should eat dinner together. It’s a chance to see if a child or teen seems angry, doesn’t talk or is reclusive,” Frost said.

    “If there are signs of what you consider may be strange behavior, but you’re not sure, my rule is: If you question it, then find out about it. A lot of things we say is teenage behavior is not. It’s perhaps the beginning of emotional disturbance.”.

    (Contributing: The Associated Press).