On February 14, 2018, expelled Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz re-entered the halls of his alma mater. This time, he didn't carry with him books and pencils - he had high-powered rifles and a desire to hurt.
Cruz brutally assaulted the school through the Freshman building, murdering 17 and wounding an additional 17, in an attack that lasted 4 minutes - both moments and a lifetime.
Now, Cruz is on trial for one of the most horrifying school shootings in American history, and his lawyers are pleading for him to be spared the death penalty. Cruz's brain, they say, is "irretrievably broken" due to his childhood. The way they are portraying Cruz's defense is that his eventual lashing out was almost a given, because his mental health was so poor. It has sparked anew a discussion on mass violence and mental health, and whether or not severe mental health requires mercy - and whether treating our mentally ill more thoroughly can prevent more shootings in the future.
Nikolas Cruz's Brain is 'Broken' Due to Childhood
The Parkland shooter doesn't deserve mercy, if you ask a vast majority of those following the trial of Cruz. But his lawyers believe that he is so traumatized and broken by a difficult childhood that he was never capable of stopping himself.
BBC reports, "On Monday Melisa McNeil, Cruz's lead lawyer, said her client had been exposed to drugs and alcohol while in his mother's womb, citing this as a contributing factor to the massacre.
'Because of that, his brain was irretrievably broken, through no fault of his own,' she said, calling him a 'damaged person', and describing his run-ins with school officials and police throughout his childhood in an adopted home.
'We must understand the person behind the crime,' Ms McNeil told the jury of seven men, five women and 10 alternate jurors."
Cruz's half-sister also testified that their mother was abusive and described her as "horrible."
However, when the trial kicked off in mid-July, the BBC writes, "... prosecutors argued that the defendant deserved to die for the 'goal-directed, planned, systematic murder - mass murder - of 14 students, an athletic director, a teacher and a coach'."
The defense's tactic of getting a lesser sentence than the death penalty due to Cruz's childhood misfortune and mental state has inspired the public to discuss the role of mental illness in the commission of crimes - and how accountable we should hold criminals when they have severe mental illness.
Can We Stop Mass Shootings with Better Mental Health Infrastructure?
Unfortunately, the answer is no.
While increased access to mental health care and better funding is better for everyone across the United States, the issues of mass shooters are not quite so simple. While some mass shooters have some comorbidities with mental health, many of them aren't diagnosed or caught by any system - school, mental health, church, or otherwise - before they become mass killers.
Yet every time a mass shooting occurs, a large portion of the public begins discussing mental health access and concerns and how treating depressed teenagers is the way to prevent mass shootings. Unfortunately, that public discourse not only alienates those whom it is about and keeps the mentally ill out of the dialogue, it isn't particularly productive towards preventing mass shootings.
Mental illness may seem easy to blame, but mentally ill mass murderers make up only a small portion of those who perpetrate like crimes. Columbia Psychiatry writes, "The public tends to link serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia or psychotic disorders, with violence and mass shootings. But serious mental illness—specifically psychosis—is not a key factor in most mass shootings or other types of mass murder. Approximately 5% of mass shootings are related to severe mental illness. And although a much larger number of mass shootings (about 25%) are associated with non-psychotic psychiatric or neurological illnesses, including depression, and an estimated 23% with substance use, in most cases these conditions are incidental.
Additionally ... the contribution of mental illness to mass shootings has decreased over time. The data suggest that while it is critical that we continue to identify those individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders at high risk for violence and prevent the perpetration of violence, other risk factors, such as a history of legal problems, challenges coping with severe and acute life stressors, and the epidemic of the combination of nihilism, emptiness, anger, and a desire for notoriety among young men, seem a more useful focus for prevention and policy than an emphasis on serious mental illness, which leads to public fear and stigmatization."
So why do people link the mentally ill and mass shootings so frequently in public discourse? It's a coping mechanism. Mass murder is so nonsensical and hard to understand for the vast majority of the population, and they need to give themselves some way of grounding and coping with the unimaginable. If they can blame it on mental illness - someone whose brain has snapped - they can feel a little more confident that they aren't going to do it. That the people they love aren't going to do it. That there are signs, warnings they can see ahead of time and protect themselves by being aware of. Unfortunately, reality doesn't align with this coping mechanism.
Columbia adds, "Half of all mass shootings are associated with no red flags—no diagnosed mental illness, no substance use, no history of criminality, nothing. They’re generally committed by middle-aged men who are responding to a severe and acute stressor, so they're not planned, which makes them very difficult to prevent. So, we must look much further upstream." They recommend looking at gun access laws. Community structural support is also vital. People who feel as though they are welcome in a community, belong and have resources are less likely to feel alienated and lash out.
While mental health is always a vital discussion for any civilized nation to have, it's not the key to stopping mass murders and school shootings. The approach to lessening these incidents is multi-modal and must be approached practically rather than by scapegoating the mentally ill.