Skip to main content

Shootings show need for mental health care

By Gerald Landsberg, Special to CNN
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu September 19, 2013
The FBI identified Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old military contractor from Texas, as the perpetrator of the shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, September 16. Authorities said at least 12 people -- and Alexis -- were killed in the shooting. The FBI identified Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old military contractor from Texas, as the perpetrator of the shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, September 16. Authorities said at least 12 people -- and Alexis -- were killed in the shooting.
HIDE CAPTION
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gerald Landsberg: Navy Yard shooter appears to have had mental health problems
  • He says communication between agencies might have prevented massacre
  • He says nation must prioritize mental health treatment; instead cuts have led to less care
  • Landsberg: Obama mental health initiatives a good step; shooting shows much more needed

Editor's note: Gerald Landsberg is a professor at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University and director of the Institute Against Violence, which conducts research and provides training and technical assistance in forensic mental health, youth violence prevention and family violence prevention and intervention.

(CNN) -- The investigation of the Washington Navy Yard shootings is yielding information about the shooter's background and possible motives. One significant one: The Associated Press reported that officials said Aaron Alexis was "suffering a host of serious mental issues, including paranoia and a sleep disorder. He also had been hearing voices in his head."

Mental illness frequently emerges as part of the background of America's mass shootings, including those in Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; and Newtown, Connecticut.

In those cases, it was quickly discovered that acquaintances, family, school officials -- sometimes mental health providers -- knew about the suspects' psychiatric problems. Bureaucratic roadblocks hindered the communications between police and the individual or agency mental health providers who had had contact with these men before they lashed out.

Gerald Landsberg
Gerald Landsberg

Law enforcement and the Navy will be doing the police work to figure out how and why Monday's shooting occurred and what further steps are needed. However, the rest of us could consider how a country that stigmatizes mental illness and places a low priority on mental health care increases the chance of such tragedies occurring regularly, with devastating effects on families and communities.

Opinion: Get serious about mental health care

Now, with respect to Aaron Alexis and the Washington Navy Yard killings, the suspect indeed appeared to have mental health problems. He'd sought help from Veterans Affairs hospitals around the capital, law enforcement sources told CNN.

And after an incident in Seattle in which he shot out the tires on the car of a man he thought had mocked him, his family told police that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his having been in New York City on September 11, 2001 (although work colleagues of his from back then don't recall his volunteering in the aftermath of that attack).

Guns and America's mental health system
Cutter: Gun increase breaks all logic
Hagel: We'll fix security gaps
Remembering the victims

Alexis had apparently asked for help from the VA for psychiatric problems but was not declared unfit by the Navy, which could have revoked his security clearance and perhaps prevented him from gaining ready access to the Navy Yard grounds.

The question that needs to be addressed in the coming days and months is: Why do barriers to communication across agencies exist, and how can they be reduced or eliminated? These are not simple questions, but they are extremely important when it comes to prevention. These are the practical concerns of a police investigation trying to unravel motivation and understand how such an attack could have occurred.

But there is a human and community dimension to this tragedy that needs attention as well. It's important to remember, for example, that the mentally ill are far, far more often the victims of violence than its perpetrators. Research consistently suggests that the mentally ill, if they do not abuse drugs and alcohol and if they stay in treatment, are actually less likely to commit violence than other populations. Further, research has also highlighted that if violence does occur, it is family members and friends who are the most likely to be the victims (85% of the time, or more).

That well-grounded fact is not a reason to ignore the troubling and continuing erosion of mental health services as a result of government budget cuts -- nearly $5 billion in three years and affecting nearly all the states. These cuts have decreased the availability of mental health services at the school and community level both for those suffering mental health problems and for others who have family members who are mentally ill. Adequately funding such services could make a difference in curbing violence.

Opinion: Masculinity, mental illness and guns - a lethal equation?

As reductions in services occur, the police and jails are increasingly absorbing a population of mentally ill people who end up committing crimes. The jails become mental health providers at much higher costs then mental health outpatient services. For example, in New York City's Rikers Island jail the mentally ill constitute over 30% of all inmates and the cost of incarceration for a year is over $165,000.

Thankfully, the federal government and mental health advocates at a recent White House conference defined important, much-needed steps, such as a new website for mental health information, expansions of mental health funding through the Affordable Care Act, and modest new funding for communities in crisis. However, this new federal money is small compared to that lost in state cutbacks. Thus the needs will continue to be great.

The families of the victims in the Navy Yard massacre, as well as the survivors, need ongoing supportive services, and this should be a priority. But we cannot and should not stop there. The need for better mental health care is truly nationwide, and extensive new programming is needed.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gerald Landsberg.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT