In the aftermath of the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo.; Newtown, Conn.; Tucson, Ariz.; Virginia Tech; the Washington Navy Yard; and sadly, other locales, conventional wisdom held that the epidemic of mass shootings was a problem of gun control. I wrote columns attempting to draw attention to the mental health system in America that so wrongheadedly fails to treat the dangerous mentally ill.
Now, at last, the mental health angle on mass shootings has become conventional wisdom — just in time, perhaps, to be wrong again.
"Fort Hood shooter had mental problems" the USA Today headline read. "Fort Hood shooter was Iraq vet being treated for mental health issues," CNN announced. A number of stories mentioned post-traumatic stress disorder as the possible culprit for Spc. Ivan Lopez's awful crime, and most discussions of the attack have sought answers in psychiatry.
Yet, unlike the gunmen in the other recent mass attacks, Lopez seems to have been sane. He was a married father of four and apparently close to his family of origin in Puerto Rico. He had been distraught by the recent death of his mother and apparently extremely angry with the military for delaying his leave to attend the funeral. But these are normal feelings and reactions. He was receiving treatment for depression and anxiety, and while he had been evaluated for PTSD, Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the post's commander, said Lopez did not experience direct combat in Iraq.
Ironically, Lopez had commented on his Facebook page about Adam Lanza, the Newtown murderer, writing: Lanza "pretends to be a victim of a mental illness followed by addiction to violent video games." He continued, "It is stupid to me that anyone can have easy access to a powerful weapon without being mentally evaluated. This makes the government indirect accomplice ... . These bastards have perfected their way of attacking studying previous massacres to gain publicity and their minute of fame as a villain. But thanks to Hollywood and the sensational profiling by the media (they) give more power to those intelligent cowards."
And then he became one of those "cowards." It's mystifying and deeply disturbing, this mania to gun down large numbers of innocent people before committing suicide. While it's not unique to this country — there was a mass murder/suicide this week in Nigeria, and there have been others in various countries — it's fair to say that we have the dubious distinction of leading the world in mass shootings. It has become an American psychosis with such occult power that it can capture even someone seemingly normal like Lopez; someone who didn't hear voices or suffer delusions or live cut off in an autistic world of video games and loneliness. And the more it happens, the more it seems to appeal to the sadistic/enraged outliers in society who figure that's the way to exit these days.
But our puzzlement over the causes of this disturbing violence should not lead us to seize upon the explanation du jour.
The coverage of mental illness and PTSD in this case threatens to reinforce an utterly unfair stereotype of veterans. While veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have for the most part been honored for their service and welcomed home with open arms (in contrast to the treatment given returning Vietnam vets), they are burdened by civilians' misconceptions about PTSD. Social workers associated with Wounded Warriors Family Support, for example, have described to me the reluctance of some employers to hire them precisely because they fear that veterans are less mentally stable than other people.
In fact, the suicide rate among veterans is no higher than that for the comparable civilian population. Tim Worstall, writing for Forbes, crunched the numbers (comparing the rate of military suicides to male civilians, for example, since most members of the military are men) and found that the suicide rate among active-duty members of the military is actually a bit lower than the civilian rate.
According to a report for the Philanthropy Roundtable, veterans are more physically and mentally fit and better educated than the average civilian. Only about 1 percent of veterans lack a high school degree, compared with 12 percent of civilians. Seventy-eight percent have a high school diploma, some college or an associate's degree, versus only 59 percent of civilians. There are more civilians with college degrees than among non-officers in the military (29 vs. 19 percent), but 83 percent of officers have college degrees or higher.
Only about 25 percent of young civilians could meet the demanding mental and physical fitness tests required of all members of the military. Yet veterans' unemployment rate is two points higher than the average. Sensationalist stories about PTSD can make it that much harder for deserving vets to find work and reintegrate.