When I heard the news last week of another school shooting, my first reaction was anger. I thought, "Not again!" It hadn't been two weeks since Isla Vista. Anger was quickly replaced by shock, as I heard the location -- next door to me, at Seattle Pacific University. I got my psych degree at SPU, and as soon as I heard the news, I immediately thought of my undergrad days. It was hard for me to reconcile the beautiful, peaceful place where I went to school with a scene of chaos, violence and death. "Surreal" is the only word that works. A shooting anywhere is hard to wrap your brain around, but it's another thing to realize that this time it's in your own backyard. Aaron Ybarra, who confessed to the SPU shootings, lives about 10 minutes from me. He went to a community college three miles from my office.
According to the Seattle Times article I saw a few days ago, Ybarra was obsessed with Columbine, not Isla Vista. Since 2010 Ybarra was known to the local police and county mental-health professionals, having been hospitalized twice for claiming he heard the voice of one of the Columbine killers in his head, urging him to hurt people. In 2011 he was referred again for involuntary treatment but was considered "not detainable."
The Times piece depicts a person who was known to the system as having problems, but not enough problems to trigger long-term removal from society. Ybarra appears to have managed for years to live, go to school and find employment while rage festered inside him, causing him to self-medicate with alcohol. The Times piece interviewed neighbors and friends who were shocked to learn that the shooter was Ybarra, saying, "I never thought he'd be capable." They shouldn't feel guilty about that; it appears that even the professionals he came into contact with didn't either.
So how do you know what someone is capable of? So much of the information we have as mental-health professionals comes from what we call self-reporting: The person tells you what he or she is thinking, feeling, believing, or planning, and then you make a determination regarding whether or not you perceive a danger. Even when you perceive a danger, the bar for having someone placed on a mental-health hold for more than a few days is very high. As a society we are predisposed to making it extremely difficult to remove a person's rights. I certainly don't want my rights removed, but where should that standard be? Lately I'm not sure that we've set the bar correctly.
When talking about Isla Vista, I reminisced about the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, about a man unfairly committed to a mental institution. With the shootings at SPU, the movie that comes to mind is Minority Report and the concept of pre-crime, where people are arrested not on the basis of what they've done but on the basis of what it's determined that they will do. I don't want people institutionalized without present cause, but I'm also sick of the violence I've seen over the past few weeks.
How do we, as a society, handle Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook), James Holmes (Aurora theater), Elliot Rodger (Isla Vista) or Aaron Ybarra (SPU)? We need to decide, because the list keeps growing. After Elliot Rodger came Aaron Ybarra. After Aaron Ybarra we now have Jared Padgett (Reynolds High School), less than a week later. We can focus on the method, but what we need to pay attention to is the madness.