Skip to main content

Shootings show need for mental health care

By Gerald Landsberg, Special to CNN
September 19, 2013 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
The FBI identified Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old military contractor from Texas, as the perpetrator of the shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, September 16. Authorities said at least 12 people -- and Alexis -- were killed in the shooting. The FBI identified Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old military contractor from Texas, as the perpetrator of the shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, September 16. Authorities said at least 12 people -- and Alexis -- were killed in the shooting.
HIDE CAPTION
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gerald Landsberg: Navy Yard shooter appears to have had mental health problems
  • He says communication between agencies might have prevented massacre
  • He says nation must prioritize mental health treatment; instead cuts have led to less care
  • Landsberg: Obama mental health initiatives a good step; shooting shows much more needed

Editor's note: Gerald Landsberg is a professor at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University and director of the Institute Against Violence, which conducts research and provides training and technical assistance in forensic mental health, youth violence prevention and family violence prevention and intervention.

(CNN) -- The investigation of the Washington Navy Yard shootings is yielding information about the shooter's background and possible motives. One significant one: The Associated Press reported that officials said Aaron Alexis was "suffering a host of serious mental issues, including paranoia and a sleep disorder. He also had been hearing voices in his head."

Mental illness frequently emerges as part of the background of America's mass shootings, including those in Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; and Newtown, Connecticut.

In those cases, it was quickly discovered that acquaintances, family, school officials -- sometimes mental health providers -- knew about the suspects' psychiatric problems. Bureaucratic roadblocks hindered the communications between police and the individual or agency mental health providers who had had contact with these men before they lashed out.

Gerald Landsberg
Gerald Landsberg

Law enforcement and the Navy will be doing the police work to figure out how and why Monday's shooting occurred and what further steps are needed. However, the rest of us could consider how a country that stigmatizes mental illness and places a low priority on mental health care increases the chance of such tragedies occurring regularly, with devastating effects on families and communities.

Opinion: Get serious about mental health care

Now, with respect to Aaron Alexis and the Washington Navy Yard killings, the suspect indeed appeared to have mental health problems. He'd sought help from Veterans Affairs hospitals around the capital, law enforcement sources told CNN.

And after an incident in Seattle in which he shot out the tires on the car of a man he thought had mocked him, his family told police that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his having been in New York City on September 11, 2001 (although work colleagues of his from back then don't recall his volunteering in the aftermath of that attack).

Guns and America's mental health system
Cutter: Gun increase breaks all logic
Hagel: We'll fix security gaps
Remembering the victims

Alexis had apparently asked for help from the VA for psychiatric problems but was not declared unfit by the Navy, which could have revoked his security clearance and perhaps prevented him from gaining ready access to the Navy Yard grounds.

The question that needs to be addressed in the coming days and months is: Why do barriers to communication across agencies exist, and how can they be reduced or eliminated? These are not simple questions, but they are extremely important when it comes to prevention. These are the practical concerns of a police investigation trying to unravel motivation and understand how such an attack could have occurred.

But there is a human and community dimension to this tragedy that needs attention as well. It's important to remember, for example, that the mentally ill are far, far more often the victims of violence than its perpetrators. Research consistently suggests that the mentally ill, if they do not abuse drugs and alcohol and if they stay in treatment, are actually less likely to commit violence than other populations. Further, research has also highlighted that if violence does occur, it is family members and friends who are the most likely to be the victims (85% of the time, or more).

That well-grounded fact is not a reason to ignore the troubling and continuing erosion of mental health services as a result of government budget cuts -- nearly $5 billion in three years and affecting nearly all the states. These cuts have decreased the availability of mental health services at the school and community level both for those suffering mental health problems and for others who have family members who are mentally ill. Adequately funding such services could make a difference in curbing violence.

Opinion: Masculinity, mental illness and guns - a lethal equation?

As reductions in services occur, the police and jails are increasingly absorbing a population of mentally ill people who end up committing crimes. The jails become mental health providers at much higher costs then mental health outpatient services. For example, in New York City's Rikers Island jail the mentally ill constitute over 30% of all inmates and the cost of incarceration for a year is over $165,000.

Thankfully, the federal government and mental health advocates at a recent White House conference defined important, much-needed steps, such as a new website for mental health information, expansions of mental health funding through the Affordable Care Act, and modest new funding for communities in crisis. However, this new federal money is small compared to that lost in state cutbacks. Thus the needs will continue to be great.

The families of the victims in the Navy Yard massacre, as well as the survivors, need ongoing supportive services, and this should be a priority. But we cannot and should not stop there. The need for better mental health care is truly nationwide, and extensive new programming is needed.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gerald Landsberg.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT