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Dr. Gail Gross Headshot

Losing Our Way in Mental Health: Lessons From the Navy Yard Shooting

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Aaron Alexis, the 34-year-old civilian navy contractor, who allegedly killed 13 people on Monday, September 16, did not live in a vacuum. Alexis had a past history and a record:

  • In August of this year he complained to the police that he was hearing voices coming from his hotel ceiling and walls, as well as vibrations in his body placed there by microwaves. The police officers were alerted to this account and they reported the incident to the U.S. Navy.
  • He had a record of violence with the Navy, including an anger blackout in which he shot out a construction worker's tires in 2004.
  • He also had a police history of shooting at the ceiling of his hotel room.
  • His father is quoted as saying he had post-traumatic stress disorder, which included anger management problems.
  • Not long ago, he went to the Veterans' hospital asking for treatment for mental issues.

The reports show he had a pattern of aggressive reaction to criticism from Navy authorities, a pattern of dangerous behavior, and those should have been red flags as pre-attack indicators. Nevertheless, he had access and security clearance to the Navy yard in Washington. As with other shooters, whether in the public domain, school, courtroom, business or a Navy yard, Alexis is one of many who have telegraphed to all who would listen that he was in trouble.

This speaks to the mental health issues we have in this country. A large population of the homeless are the mentally ill that used to be in mental institutions before those institutions became obsolete. Mental illness strikes an uncomfortable chord in our country. If a person has cancer or heart disease we treat them with support, caring and compassion. But, if a person has mental illness, we often, as a culture, turn away... though, if treated, many of these illnesses of the brain, can be helped or cured.

Mental illness is reaching a critical mass and we are seeing it played out in the field of gun issues. But before we can address weapons we have to address the mental health and treatment of the shooter.