Don Hartsough

The tragic school shooting in Connecticut has the nation searching for an answer to the question, “How do we prevent this from happening again?” I would offer Bulletin readers the perspective of a psychologist who has specialized in crisis intervention, including suicide intervention, and hostage negotiation with a major urban police department.

First, it is useful to view the recent shooter’s actions as a form of suicide preceded by mass homicide. Second, one must consider the potential lethality (another term for “dangerousness”) of the means that the suicidal individual chooses. Some means for inflicting self-harm are more lethal than others; for example, shooting is much more deadly than taking 30 aspirin.

In my view, it helps to view someone who is genuinely intending to commit suicide as a person who is trying to solve a deeply personal and emotional problem. For the moment, he has narrowed his options to killing himself and little else. If there is an opportunity to communicate with that individual, to hear his desperation and pain, then there is also the opportunity to help him find a less destructive solution to the problem that is making him so miserable.

In my opinion, it is not wise to think of suicidal individuals as merely “mentally ill” (although some, in fact, may present that additional challenge to a helper). The general rule is deal with the suicidal threat first, then with other psychological or psychiatric problems later. The urgent call for more mental health services that is now being heard in legislatures and repeated by the media is thus way too broad if it is intended to prevent mass shootings. The young man who killed so many was, in my view, a deeply troubled person, but he was not psychotic; as a former FBI behavioral analyst said, “He knew exactly what he was doing.” To be effective, added mental health resources should be devoted primarily to crisis and suicide intervention. The hope is that early intervention will assist the potential shooter in finding another way of resolving his emotional issues.

Then there is the matter of lethality. If you are trying to help a family, for example, with a seriously suicidal family member, you insist that they make the likely means of committing suicide unavailable to the troubled person. Remove guns and knives and potent drugs from easy access. Make sure trips in the family car are accompanied by other adults. You get the idea. Inflicting pain on self or others with a baseball bat may cause harm, but much less than an assault weapon. In monitoring access to lethal means, individual privacy, of course, should be honored, but the person’s daily moods and actions should also be observed.

Psychologists will readily admit that identifying a specific individual as a potential mass shooter — picking him out among all the troubled people in our nation — is nearly impossible. Instead, here is what we, as a nation, can do:

1. Limit access to weapons whose only function is to fire deadly ammunition in rapid fire bursts in limited time (so-called “assault weapons”) — this reduces lethality.

2. Increase the likelihood that potentially suicidal mass killers will have the opportunity to come in contact with an experienced helper who can help them solve their problems before they create a tragedy.