Friday, July 20, 2012

Movie and off-the-screen horror

Blockbuster films have, in the past few years, begun to show special midnight screenings as a way of attracting large crowds and creating a great deal of media excitement. One form of excitement that the film moguls never anticipated was the shooting just the other day of over 70 people with 14 dead at a midnight screening of the latest Batman film in Aurora, Colorado. I can imagine that theatergoers were anticipating some sort of theatrical interaction when the man, dressed all in black, entered a side door and threw what appeared to be some type of smoke bomb into the audience.

There have been a number of theatrical entertainments on Broadway and elsewhere that have used this device of having an individual actually go into the audience. So it may not have seemed so unusual to them and that aided the man who had come to kill them.

The media has been quick to seek out so-called experts to comment on this man's behavior, thinking, his personality and every aspect they can possibly form into a question. The problem is that most of the experts are not experts in the true sense of having any educational background in dealing with individuals who engage in what must be seen as pathological behavior. One expert indicated that this was a man who wanted the spotlight and that the media was giving that to him.  

How does she know that?  Oh, forgive me, I forgot she's a profiler. What's a profiler? Someone who gets it right about half the time. It's as good as a coin toss but they wax lyrical in their alleged ability to delve into the deep recesses of this unknown individual's mind. Yes, unknown.

Any psychologist knows that you don't make statements about anyone without having either interviewed them in person or had an opportunity to review quite a bit of information along with some personal interaction. It's mandated. Otherwise it's considered unethical and conjecture. I guess for profilers there is no ethical boundary here. After all, they aren't licensed and they aren't psychologists.

So we've been treated to at least two nationally-known profilers who have told us what they think was going through this man's mind and one of them said that he was not psychotic because he took months to prepare his attack. Not a psychotic?  I guess he must have read that somewhere that people do these things suddenly and it just comes over them.

He would've gotten a failing grade on that question because we know individuals who are in a psychotic state can function, can plan and can do things months in advance before they act on their thinking. Just take a look at the Unibomber,  Ted Kaczynski, a brilliant scientist who for years constructed bombs and sent them to professionals in the field to kill and maim them. Will we ever truly know his reasoning? The fact that he took so long means he wasn't psychotic? Of course he was.

Looking at the situation from afar and having had no direct contact with this man, the record seems to indicate that he was very bright, very isolated, and in danger of academic suspension in an incredibly difficult neuroscience degree-granting doctoral program. The indications were that his grades had fallen precipitously and that after being placed on academic probation the next step would be dismissal from the program. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an organization only the best and brightest are accepted into.

We don't know what happened to him but we do know that something was going on for months, maybe years and it wasn't detected in time. He didn't get help he desperately needed, but probably would have refused. Think of the fellow who shot Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona.  We still don't know his reasoning but we do know that he suffers from a serious mental illness.  And now mental health coverage all over the country is being cut.   It's the same thing that we've heard before; pay me now or pay me later. If we don't act and help we can only guess what the outcome will be for some of these people, their neighbors, families, friends and even strangers.

Then there's the case  of the Virginia Tech student shooting where the individual had been found to have emotional problems which, apparently, were not addressed and who did not receive any ongoing therapy and support.   He, too, prepared in advance and purchased numerous guns. There was a plan and he carried it out. In my mind, he also suffered from some form of psychosis. Thirty-three people were killed that day.  The shooter also killed himself.

 Psychologists know all too well about the Tanya Tarasoff case in California where a young man had advised a therapist on campus that he was thinking of hurting Tanya. As I recall, he indicated he had violent dreams about her and, after she came back from vacation,  he killed her. Ultimately, her death and the trials following it,  resulted in what we know as “a duty to protect or to warn.”   We don't know if the young man in Colorado had been evaluated or seen by any mental health professionals at any period in his life.

Getting back to the so-called experts.  What do we need to begin to look at and to question when we see individuals who are presented as experts on psychological issues on television? How did they come to be experts? Are they really experts in the true sense of the word or are they something that has led them to be seen as such? Working for certain investigative agencies is helpful but it does not necessarily make you an expert on psychosis or on other psychiatric disorders. I think any judge who would have those credentials presented for a trial where psychotic thinking was at the core of the case would throw that expert out. Having an MD doesn't make one an expert, either, although some MDs are willing to speak about anything before any microphone put into their faces.

The main thing right now, as the investigative team is doing its work, is for us to begin to do the work that we can do in our own towns and homes. We need to reassure the children, who will obviously be very upset by what they see on the TV, that they are safe and that we will take care of them. We need to tell them that this was a man who is ill and needs help. It's the best we can do to help these children be able to sleep at night and be comfortable going to the movies in the future because movies provide us wonderful experiences.

 Please always remember to change that familiar phrase from “Question authority” to “Question experts.”