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Movie theater shooting: Making sense of random acts of violence

July 20, 2012|By Nika Soon-Shiong | Los Angeles Times
  • Amanda Medek looked for her sister on Friday after the shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. A Harvard psychiatrist, asked how people process random acts of violence, said that they will want explanations but may not find good answers.
Amanda Medek looked for her sister on Friday after the shooting in an Aurora,… (RJ Sangosti / The Denver…)

Friday’s shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., has left 12 people dead, 59 injured -- and an entire community in horror.  As the victims face an uncertain future, many wonder what they’ll have in store on the rocky road to mental and physical recovery.

Dr. Ronald Schouten, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston, talked with The Times about these issues.  He is a director of the Law and Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital and currently works on assessing the mental state of criminals.  He is a co-author of the book “Almost a Psychopath,” which examines the dangers of undiagnosed psychopathic behaviors.

How do victims and community members make sense of this violence?

I don’t know that anybody ever makes sense of these things.  If there is a political motive, if it is an act of terrorism, we can see a purpose even though it is senseless violence.

How do we understand the motivation for doing something like this? 

On its face it’s not rational. There is nothing to be gained. Once we know more about it over time we will see what sparked this, but we should never expect it to be rational.

What long-term effects will persist in the wake of this tragedy?

Human beings — we are remarkably resilient. In the short term, the loved ones of people who were killed will go through a grieving process. For those who are wounded, a certain percentage will wind up with post-traumatic stress disorder.

But communities bounce back — look at New York after9/11. Most of us woke up with dreams about airplanes, but this mentality decreases in about three to four weeks for most people.

How will the surviving victims mentally recover from the shooting, and what implications will it have for their futures?

Some of the victims may develop acute stress disorder in the first month, which is a near-term version of PTSD.  There will be pretty significant symptoms of flashbacks, intrusive memories, panicked feelings -- especially when they get near a movie theater or see anything about Batman.  However, the majority of people will recover from that over time with or without treatment.

For gunmen in these situations, what pressures or other factors are relevant to their decision to act on violent impulses?

We suspect that there was significant mental illness involved. There may be substance abuse involved. We just don’t know. He was fully armed and had multiple rounds available to him —  he was clearly in commando mode. So you can imagine someone who has mental illness who finds himself drawn in and immersed into the themes of the film.

People with delusions will adopt whatever is in the news. Whatever is current in society — that is what populates the delusions.

The alleged shooter, James Holmes, reportedly dropped out of a graduate program in neuroscience. As both a professor and expert on shootings, do you think there is a correlation between the stress of being in graduate school  and the desire to commit violence?

When we look at campus shootings -- and I have done some of that -- there are a number of different factors. They often involve people who have not been doing well [academically].  There certainly could be a relationship between stress and violent behavior, and we have seen this in other campus shootings.

Return to the Booster Shots blog.

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