SU professors give perspective on mental health and violence

The violence in our nation continues. After the Aurora, Colo. shootings, the massacre in Newtown, Conn., and the more recent Boston Marathon bombing, another United States massacre has happened.

Monday, Sept. 16, 34-year-old Aaron Alexis opened fire at the Washington Navy Yard just after 8 a.m. Over a dozen people were killed, including Alexis, and eight more were injured.

According to the New York Times, within minutes of the first bursts of gunfire, hundreds of police and naval officers, along with military helicopters, surrounded the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters.

The Washington Nationals major league baseball team postponed their game against the Atlanta Braves, which was supposed to take place that evening, out of respect for the incident.

With each mass shooting, citizens’ outrage over the always-controversial and debatable gun control policies has skyrocketed. Parents want their children to be safe at school; people should have a right to go to a summer blockbuster or participate in an annual marathon without fear of losing their lives.

Even worse, how can people possibly detect who will carry out attacks such as these, and more importantly, why?

Shippensburg University’s Dr. Kim Weikel, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and associate psychology professor, believes that it is almost impossible for people to detect a mentally ill person on the brink of committing an act of violence.

“There isn’t good research to tell us how to predict violence,” Weikel said.

“These kinds of horrific events are rare, relative to all of the news events we have, but they capture our attention, and they’re scary.”

She also made an observation about the mentally ill that some people may not understand.

“It’s important to keep in mind that most people with serious mental illness are not violent. As a matter of fact, persons with serious mental illness are more likely to be victims than they are to be perpetrators.”

Weikel believes that one of the key, and most obvious, factor that contributes to violent people is the use of drugs and alcohol.

“One thing that we do know when they start looking at violence is that there is serious and persistent mental illness and substance use.”

But even with so many acts of violence continuing to overwhelm the nation’s safety and security, Weikel says that the percentage of violent mentally ill people is remarkably low. According to a study she looked up from the textbook “(ab) Normal Psychology,” only 2.9 percent of mentally ill people are violent.

“Relative to everything going on in the world, these violent events are not common enough to give us enough data for predicting violence,” Weikel said.

Weikel also brought up a theory she had, saying that sometimes there is no correlation between mental illness and violence.

“People are violent for all kinds of reasons, and sometimes there’s no way to ever know the reason. With a lot of these violent events, we never know the reason. There’s a lot of things that motivate violence, and most of them have nothing to do with mental illness.”

Aside from substance abuse, Weikel believes that the only other sure indicator of violent activity is if the perpetrator simply talks about his or her intent to do it.

Dr. Kenneth France, also a psychology professor, has a different opinion on what causes this behavior.

“The most clear-cut guidelines are actually from the courts. The courts have identified three factors, and they say if you have two of these factors, then the violence would be at the greater likelihood of occurring.” France said.

According to France, those three factors are the motivation for violence, a history of violence and identifying a target. He also believes that predicting violence related to mental illness is just like trying to predict a long-term weather forecast.

“It’s hard to say it’s predictable. It’s kind of like predicting the weather. You can make a prediction of what the weather is going to be an hour from now and you’re probably pretty good.

A day from now, not quite as good. Two weeks from now, forget it.”
Most people would think that these mass shootings and bomb attacks are further increasing the nation’s doubts about security and safety, but France disagrees.

“If people were really anxious about this, they would be up in arms about Congress talking about shutting down the government.”
Whether or not people will be able to predict a mentally ill person’s behavior and actions, it is important to bear these facts in mind to shed some light on some of the recent tragedies that have happened in the U.S., and with any luck, prevent more from happening.

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