Existential Roundup

Full moon rising - Existential Roundup
Photo by Andrew McMillan.

Welcome to the Existential Roundup, where we bring you links to some articles currently trending that may be of interest to those in the existential-humanistic psychology community.

Unfortunately, the news of the week has returned to the psychology of mass shooters in the wake of the most recent incident last weekend in Santa Barbara, CA. Previously discussions on this site have discussed the futility of trying to actually get into the mind of these people—of trying to figure out what made them snap against us—since one of our more powerful coping strategies is to create the us-them dichotomy. And of course, we struggle to figure out the reasons this happened.

In the case of Elliot Rodger, a 23-year-old college student who killed six people and wounded 13 others in Isla Vista, CA, we have a large amount of documentary evidence in Rodger’s own words. His written manifesto and YouTube videos echo alternately of pain and anger and wrath and pathos, while at the same time casting blame on an entire world who repeatedly wronged him. My first thought when reading the manifesto was to wonder why no one heard him screaming prior to this?

This, however, is not what others seem to be wondering. Perhaps the most bizarre article was to be found on Reason.com where they queried, “Could Therapy Culture Help Explain Elliott Rodger’s Rampage?” The article poses this question based on information that Rodger was supposedly seeing a therapist, or at points, multiple therapists, almost every day of his life from the age of eight. This argument dates back to Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism in which Lasch contended that the so-called therapy culture of the 1970s had created a new “narcissistic personality.” (¶ 10) Thus, the article proposes, Rodger may have spent so much time navel gazing and focusing on himself that he was ill equipped to deal with society and went on a deadly rampage. However, there has to be so much more to this story—what kind of therapy, what kind of therapist, what kind of therapeutic relationship, what kinds of therapeutic experiences?—that this argument seems at best way too reductionist.

More on target is an Op-Ed article by Richard A. Friedman in The New York Times entitled, “Why Can’t Doctors Identify Killers?” Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, says that when these kinds of mass shootings happen now, the first cry is for improving mental health care in this country. While this is important in its own right, he says, it will do nothing to change our perceptions about the connections between violence, guns, and mental illness. He explains that first, only about four percent of all overall violence in this country can be attributed to people with mental illness. Second, mass killers, he says, are often loners and/or psychotic and thus stay away from the mental health system. Third, Friedman explains that while certain disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder may double a person’s risk for violence generally, the ability of a doctor to predict who will turn violent and who won’t is no better than chance. According to Friedman, alcohol and drug use is a better predictor than mental illness, but he says:

The sobering fact is that there is little we can do to predict or change human behavior, particularly violence; it is a lot easier to control its expression, and to limit deadly means of self-expression. In every state, we should prevent individuals with a known history of serious psychiatric illness or substance abuse, both of which predict increased risk of violence, from owning or purchasing guns. (¶ 13)

The APA itself is trying to take some steps towards looking at the issue of mental illness and gun violence in a more rational way with a new resolution on Firearm Violence Research and Prevention. While this may not sound like much on its own, the article in the Monitor notes that resolution is trying to make it easier to researchers to examine the problem scientifically, since as they state, since 1996, Congress has restricted the CDC from funding any research having to do with gun control, and that restriction was expanded in 2012 to include the National Institutes of Health. This resolution is the first step in trying to open the way to large-scale research that could possibly help shift policy in a positive way.

Wray Herbert says that hatred—the kind of hatred that fuels rampages like Rodger’s—is actually quite rare because hatred is quite personal. And often, the people we truly hate are the people we once truly loved. Herbert says to understand hatred, we should recall the ancient Greek myth of Medea and the wrath she bore for her husband, Jason, when he left her for another woman.

However, even hatred can be soothed with love, and thus I will close this with the wise and profoundly moving words of the great Maya Angelou, whose loss we feel so deeply this week:

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Thanks to Erica Stanton for her research assistance.

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