The Parkland School Mass Shooting and Its Psychiatric Implications

The mental health of the shooter impacted the jury’s outcome in the Parkland School mass shooting sentencing.

PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS

Coincidentally, around the same time as the Sandy Hook School shooting trial of Alex Jones ended, a trial about the Parkland School mass shooting ended. We discussed some of the psychological implications of the former in Friday’s column, “The Psychological Heroism of the Sandy Hook Families.” Today we will primarily cover Parkland, with an added overall perspective on mental dysfunction and crime.

In the Parkland School trial, the major mental health issue seemed to be whether whatever mental health problems the shooter had should influence whether or not he got the death penalty. He did not.

What mental disorder, if anything, could the shooter have had, and how could that mitigate his punishment? The Washington Post article, “Parkland School shooting jury spares gunman death penalty in 2018 massacre,” tried to cover that issue.1

For the trial, the article conveyed that the judge directed the jury to consider if “mitigating circumstances,” including whether the perpetrator received proper mental health care growing up, whether he suffered attention deficit disorder, and whether he was traumatized by witnessing the deaths of his adoptive parents, should spare him from the death sentence.

The prosecutor suggested that mental illness was not a mitigating factor, arguing that the perpetrator carefully planned and carried out his attack. I am not sure how viable an argument that is, because someone with DSM-5 antisocial personality disorder could do just that. They also apparently did say that he displayed a pattern of “antisocial behavior,” including antisemitism, racism, and sexism.

The defense emphasized his lifelong mental problems, starting with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and that child psychiatrists concluded that he had severe mental problems by the age of 3.

Back on June 14th, in my column that day, I concluded that it would be disingenuous to assume that anybody like this perpetrator would not have some sort of significant mental disturbance.

In contrast, in the Sandy Hook trial, although Alex Jones did not directly kill anybody, whether or not he had some sort of mental disturbance would be a relevant question, but I could not find anything about that in the trial. Taking our Goldwater Rule into account, I will not attempt to make any specific diagnostic assessment, but just to note that just like Sandy Hook, many family members were psychologically injured by his behavior and that might fall under the general rubric of a personality disorder of some sort. One also has to wonder about his veracity in another area: products he sold that led to his fortune, among them supplements like “Super Male Vitality” in order to “push back in the fight against globalist agenda.”2 We might need more regulation and education, because as the New York Times article also stated yesterday, “We Should Try to Prevent Another Alex Jones.”3

These cases, then, seem to leave us with an unsatisfying lack of clarity about distinguishing mental disturbance from criminal behavior. The ultimate additional tragedy, though, is the apparent lack of successful treatment of the perpetrators that would have prevented the adverse results in the first place. By the very nature of some psychiatric disorders, we need the help of significant others to get some risky people into treatment, let alone improved gun safety.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

References

1. Craig T. Parkland school shooting jury spares gunman death penalty in 2018 massacre. The Washington Post. Updated October 13, 2022. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2022/10/13/nikolas-cruz-spared-death-penalty-parkland-shooting/

2. Williamson E, Steel E. Conspiracy theories made Alex Jones very rich. They may bring him down. The New York Times. September 7, 2018. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/07/us/politics/alex-jones-business-infowars-conspiracy.html

3. Tufecki Z. We should try to prevent another Alex Jones. The New York Times. October 16, 2022. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/16/opinion/alex-jones-sandy-hook.html