By Susan E. Matthews
In the aftermath of a shooting that left 13 dead, including the gunman, in the nation's capital on Monday, questions are now being raised about the shooter, Aaron Alexis' mental health. Whether or not the man was in his right state of mind brings up concerns from experts about whether or not we're doing enough to keep mentally-ill individuals away from firearms and receiving proper treatment.
The shooter's father told investigators that his son had suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome following the 9/11 attacks. Not only was Alexis in New York City at the time, his father said his son served as an active participant in search and rescue attempts on the day of the attack. Following this experience, Alexis moved to Seattle where he demonstrated his first documented outburst of violence when he shot the tires in a nearby construction company's vehicle, because, according to the police report, the construction worker had disrespected him. Alexis joined the Navy in 2007, but was discharged after an incident in 2010 when he got into trouble, again for gun violence. He had shot a gun through his ceiling into his neighbor's apartment, which he explained to law enforcement issues as a mistake when cleaning the weapon, but the neighbor countered it may have been an attack. No charges were pressed, but the woman moved out of her apartment.
In the day after the 2010 shooting, other revelations about Alexis' state of mental health surfaced, as law enforcement officials found a report of Alexis calling the Newport Police Department because he said he was being stalked by three people who were keeping him awake by sending vibration to his body, The New York Times reported. Alexis told the police he was hearing voices, but because he had no prior record of mental illness, nothing else was done.
While there is no telling whether increased psychiatric help would have resulted in a different fate for the victims of Alexis' Monday rampage, experts did worry that the state of mental health care in the United States needs more support and funding to help care for people like Alexis. This is particularly true of the military health care system, said David Reiss, MD, a trauma and PTSD specialist in the San Diego area.
"If you look at the number of people who have PTSD, it overwhelms the system," said Dr. Reiss of military mental health care. Reiss emphasized that while there's been a recent trend to use PTSD as a "general way to refer to any reaction to trauma," those suffering from the disease can be living in state of "intense fight of flight response."
Particularly, there could be more screening for mental health care problems before individuals are cleared to enter the military, said psychiatrist Prakash Masand, MD, professor emeritus at Duke University and president of Global Medical Education. "Individuals who are at high risk for psychiatric illness do not belong in the military," he said.
In an additional warning, chilling when considering the violent acts that went unpunished in Alexis' life, Reiss noted that "the best predictor of violence is previous violence." Reiss noted that when someone has a seizure, they are placed on a "do not drive" list at the DMV, and said he thinks that if someone has either a psychological outburst or any reason to raise concern about whether they're dangerous, they should also be restricted from accessing firearms.
While questions have been raised today as to whether Alexis was psychotic, bipolar, or on any sort of drugs, Reiss said this points to an overarching problem in our mental health care system. "Our mental health system is on the back burner," he said, "and that's not in the best interest of anyone."
Both Reiss and Masand noted that while monitoring mental health more effectively could potentially decrease violent crimes, most violence in society is committed by individuals who are not mentally ill, and only a small portion of the mentally ill do become violent.
"Navy Shipyard Shooter's Mental Health Illness: What it Means" originally appeared on Everyday Health.