Guns and Isolated Young Men (Part 1/3)

© 2013 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Managing social problems seems to be similar to managing personal relationships – the solutions need to involve: A) Avoiding all-or-nothing thinking; B) Focusing on problem-solving rather than defensive reacting; and C) Looking at the experience or research of others. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately in terms of the debate about how to prevent shootings, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut and the Aurora theater shooting in Colorado. Both have been in the news this week. In today’s blog I apply this approach to the first issue (Parts 2 and 3 to follow next week):

A) All-or-nothing thinking: I don’t think there’s one clear-cut cause for these shootings. I think it’s primarily a combination of at least seven factors: • Socially-isolated • Young men between 15 and 25, • With mental health problems, • With easy access to automatic weapons, • Over-exposure to violent video games, • Over-exposure to dramatic news coverage, and • Overlooked warning signs.

Arguments about “whose fault” these shootings are seem pointless to me when it’s so clear that it is “all of the above.”

According to this week’s news, the socially-isolated, 20-year-old Connecticut shooter was obsessed with news coverage of other mass shootings: the Nickel Mines Amish school shootings in 2006 (10 children were shot – five died) and the 2011 killings in Norway (77 were killed, primarily teenagers at a summer camp). (, 4-2-13) The dramatic news coverage of each event appears to be the training ground for someone who makes it a steady diet. When young men with mental health problems are socially-isolated, this fantasy of power and fame can become overwhelmingly seductive.

Brain scientists say that the adolescent brain isn’t fully developed until about age 25. Before then, they are still learning impulse control, a healthy self identity, a positive role in society, social skills for dealing with adult types of relationships with other young men and women. When they are allowed to become socially-isolated, they don’t learn these skills and historically many simply stayed socially-isolated. But with access to dramatic news stories and violent video games, they can enshroud themselves in an environment of power and fame. Those with a mental illness, such as depression, schizophrenia or a personality disorder, are more susceptible than the average person to be influenced by such fantasy images and have a hard time separating fantasy from reality.

One of the biggest changes that I think society could make to immediately reduce some of this susceptibility toward violent fantasies of power and fame, is for the news to withhold the name and pictures of the shooter. Isolated young men appear to engage in these shootings with the distorted fantasy that they, too, will be plastered all over the news media and receive power and fame for engaging in the most dramatic deeds.

Why do you think that isolated young men with mental health problems seek guns for mass shootings of the most vulnerable people? That’s what it takes to get the type of extreme attention they seek to overcome their social isolation feelings. Shooting an individual gets little or no news coverage. Whenever I read about a shooter having a stockpile of news reports about other mass shootings, I believe that they are seeking the social power and fame that they have been unable to get through positive social activities.

If they would be treated as an anonymous person by withholding their name and photographs of themselves, the power and fame incentive would be significantly reduced. This would not remove the public reporting of family background, investigations of their homes, and learning from their psychological problems. We just wouldn’t hear their names or see their pictures. We can easily nip that in the bud by doing what is already done in other areas of the news, such as withholding the names of rape victims, child criminals, etc.

For a dozen years, I was a child and family counselor, and worked with many teenage boys and young adults. I learned a lot about normal and abnormal adolescent narcissism and how they think. My simple suggestion is just one of many ways we need to address the social isolation issue. We also need better identification of adolescent mental health problems, better treatment and better funding of social activities for young men. I strongly believe that this social isolation is a factor which has not been recognized enough in the all-or-nothing discussions about causes of these shootings. (Parts 2 and 3 next week.)

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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