Connecticut School Shooting Sparks Gun Control Debates. What About Mental Health?

connecticut school shooting ryan lanza

[Update: Ryan Lanza was mistakenly identified as the gunman in the Connecticut school shooting by police, but the shooter has been identified as his younger brother, Adam Lanza, who has a history of mental illness. This post has been corrected to reflect the update.]

This morning’s Connecticut school shooting has already been called the country’s second-worst, with the most recent death count at 27 total, including 18 children. And despite White House Press Secretary Jay Carney‘s insistence that today isn’t the day to discuss gun control, many are discussing why the shooter–who is believed to be a young man named Adam Lanza–was ever in possession of weapons in the first place. But one topic that’s, regrettably, missing from all the talk is mental health: Wherever you stand on gun laws, the Newtown school shooting–and the overwhelming number of massacres that have occurred recently in the U.S.–makes it hard not to wonder what’s going wrong with our country’s mental health that this is even happening.

News about the shootings is still unfolding, and many facts are unconfirmed, but the death toll at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut keeps creeping up. Most recently, the Connecticut Post reported that 29 are dead, including 22 children–making it the second most fatal school shooting in the country’s history. CNN reports that the gunman–who is dead–is Adam Lanza, a young man in his twenties who is believed to be the son of a teacher at the school, and whose father was found dead when police searched his house today after the shootings. Reports suggest that the shootings happened in a concentrated area–tragically, in a Kindergarten classroom–but police aren’t confirming death tolls or details of the scene until all families are informed.

As facts slowly trickly in, many news sources, websites, Twitter and Facebook are already on fire with debates over gun control and gun laws. Infographics depicting the deadliest U.S. shootings and facts about U.S. and international gun fatalities are spreading around like wildfire. So, of course, are debates over whether it’s appropriate to even talk about politics at all in light of the day’s tragic news for so many families, but gun laws are apt to be one of the month’s biggest topics of conversation regardless.

But the knee-jerk reaction to news like the Connecticut school shooting–before you’ve had a chance to get angry about gun control or sad about the families who just lost their children in the middle of the holidays–is just “these people are crazy.” Without knowing anything about a gunman like Adam Lanza, it’s obvious that he had mental health issues to be capable of committing such violence. So why not discuss the decline in mental health in the U.S., instead of just talking about access to weapons?

We’re far from knowing anything about Adam Lanza’s motivations or mental state, but we hope that we learn more. Because with or without guns–we’ve got problems. After Jared Loughner shot Gabby Giffords in Arizona, Mother Jones reported on madness and mass shootings, pointing out that “Mass shootings generate sensational media coverage, yet most media have failed to connect the dots with regard to mental health.”

They did their own work to “connect the dots” between mass shootings–beyond stringing together gun statistics–analyzing 61 mass shootings in the United States that have happened in the last 30 years:

No less than 80 percent of the perpetrators in these 61 cases obtained their weapons legally. Acute paranoia, delusions, and depression were rampant among them, with at least 35 of the killers committing suicide on or near the scene. (Seven others died in police shootouts they had little hope of surviving, regarded by some experts as “suicide by cop.”) And according to additional research we completed recently, at least 38 of them displayed signs of mental health problems prior to the killings. (That data is now included in the interactive map linked above.)


Could he or any of the others have been stopped in advance? It’s an exceptionally challenging question, one whose answer must take into account civil liberties, medical ethics, the proliferation of millions of guns in the United States, and our nation’s politically charged patchwork of ever-loosening gun laws.

But if we dont ask these kinds of questions, we’re losing an opportunity to make our country a safer–and happier–place to live.


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    • EAC

      I agree 100%

    • Cindy Blakeslee

      Exactly my thoughts. I am surprised that so many smart people are missing the obvious.

      • Brian Hansbarger

        Smart people? Most people are stupid enough to fall for the passionate pleas of f***ed-up liberals. A minor mental problem is one thing. Dangerous insanity is another one.

      • Mike

        Actually Brian, it appears that we have been following the advice of “f***ed-up” repugnicans… if we were following liberal advice the gunman wouldn’t have had a handgun or assault rifle at all. And that is exactly the point. If you want to hold out like a paranoid psycho to fight some imaginary demon government then please go move to Iran… we do not need you lame brains making arguments about your “need” to protect yourselves from a government that doesn’t even exist any longer. England is not ruled by the Monarchy any longer… they have parliament now, and parliament is not exercising any rights over Americans. Our government is elected by us every 2 years. So why is it that you “need” guns? Because you like the idea that you may need to murder someone? Grow up you morons!

      • William Trew Merrick

        Wow. You’re missing the point, Mike.
        Besides that, “need” is not a standard of value with which to make such judgements.

      • Josie
      • Payton Blake

        Not all dangerous people are crazy, and being “crazy” does not mean a person is dangerous.

    • Clair

      Absolutely. I can’t believe this only has 2 comments. Our country stigmatizes healthy mental health practices. Few people would feel ashamed to go to the doctor for the flu or broken leg; What are we going to do? Those of us who see the obvious need to make it known to the rest of the country. Psychologists, psychiatrists and whoever else here gets it should write letters to the editors of their papers, post notes on Facebook, ask their local news station for a half hour educational special, go tour schools telling the world how incredibly normal and treatable depression is and begin to de-stigmatize Mental Health.

    • Doc Häagen-Dazs

      Yesterday, a man with a knife slashed 22 children and one adult outside an elementary school in Henan province Friday morning, China’s worst such incident in more than a year. But these kids were wounded.

      Today, in Sandy Hook some guy killed 20 kids and 7 adults with three guns.

      It’s hard to identify crazy people and keep them medicated. But I think the Chinese have a better idea on gun control than we do.

      • Alison Moehnke

        The Chinese people are also an oppressed people…government controls what they do, and how they think – what kind of life is that?

      • BE

        “Medicated” is probably the proplem. We really must find more effective ways to deal w’ mental illness than drugs causing even worse psychosis, suicidal tendencies etc.

      • Payton Blake

        Just because someone is “crazy” doesn’t mean they are dangerous. Different does not equal dangerous, and having a mental illness or other disorders that others may view as “crazy” does not mean the person is going to go on a rampage.

        You are doing many US citizens a great disservice by associating the two and saying they need to be medicated. Yes, medications help some people, but not all. Whether or not they need them is between them and their doctors.

    • agarron

      Adam shot his mother.

      The problem is not the gun.

      The problem is Adam.

      What did the mother do?

      • Crysania

        Seriously…you’re going to blame this on his mother? I believe he also killed his father too.

      • agarron

        Seriously- i think the problem here is the mother.
        He’s a 20 year old kid.
        A baby himself.
        He was known as very quiet, reserved. (repressed?)
        He shot his mother!
        MAYBE you take her car for a spin and rip the gear box, but whack mamma?

        It’s the mother… that movie….Psycho.
        “Mother dearest”…..and all that feminine self centered selfish lifestyle nonsense.
        Alimony, custody, court restraining orders under threat of violence from ex husband, all the chaotic drama… rubs against the males.

        He snapped.

        And went to the places Mother liked most.

    • smithy

      unfortunately, most of the shootings were not because mentally ill people were nto taking drugs they were because they were taking drugs.

      Most antidepressants are well known is many cases for causing increased suicidal and/or homicidal ideation.

      I was intensely suicidal every day for 15 years due to being on 154 different antidepressant drugs before the FDA labeled that they can caused increased suicidal ideation and actions.

      When I quit when one threw me in the hospital, all suicidal ideation left and did not return for 8 years when several crises hit me I still had at the time of quitting a lot of problems and still had clinical depression but all suicidal thoughts left.

      Eventually when I got them again 8 years later, the ones I had never reached that level of bizarreness and intensity so yes these drugs alter our thoughts.

      I suggest people look into high levels of fish oil (3000-7000 mg) and increase omega three fats while decreasing the following fats as the wrong fats can cause chemical imbalances. Reduce/stop trans, hydrogenated, saturated, and most unsaturated fats.

      these drugs are dangerous, I do though think even though schizophrenics have been healed naturally they may have to get and stay on antipsychotic drugs despite there bad side effects

      • slightning

        And that’s why we need more research into mental health, and we need more ways to obtain different forms of medication if the one you’re taking isn’t working out or is having dangerous side effects. What may cause one person to become suicidal may prevent the next from ending their life, since different people react to different drugs in different ways, after all. And we need to make therapy more available, too–therapy is often overlooked in favor of handing out pills like candy, but it can do wonders.

        We also need to work to reduce the stigma attached to mental health problems so that people can feel more at ease going to their doctor and telling them that their medication isn’t working or that it’s causing them problems and they want to try something else, or that they can go find somebody who can help them.

      • Payton Blake

        154 different antidepressants in 15 years? That sounds more like an irresponsible doctor.

    • scared4humanity

      Connecticut is ground zero for LYME DISEASE, BARTONELLA, BABESIOSIS, EHRLICHIOSIS and MYCOPLASMAS, all of which can cause extreme rage, delusions, paranoia, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and suicidal thoughts (aka mental illness). Humans need to be treated the same as our pets when it comes to tick-borne illness. Psychiatric drugs like SSRIS and mood stabilizers will not kill bacteria or viruses.

    • Craig Baker

      you say you are far from knowing about his mental state, yet earlier in your article you state he had a history of mental illness…are you going on fact or just what his neighbors said?

      • Slightning

        It’s fully possible for him to have a history of mental illness and them to not know the state of mind he was in when he committed the crime. He may have had multiple mental illness issues that cause varying states of mind in the past, for example. Was he irrationally angry? Was upset in some other way? Was he simply not able to understand the consequences of his actions? Was he past caring? Was he depressed?

        Fun fact: Not all mental illness is the same, and even among those who share a mental illness not all of them will have the same mental state at all times.

        The only thing that’s clear is that his mental state was not normal, and was unstable in some way. There’s just too many ways it could have been messed up to know for sure what it was.

      • Craig Baker

        as being someone who suffers from a mental disorder Im just going to say….duh. How would they get to know more about his mental state, since the only one who can clue anyone in on that is himself….and he’s dead

    • Mary Saunders

      Many of the medications carry warnings on the labels. Many of the previous cases involved people on the medications. I received something today from MIT about new research to avoid the side effects from the current prescription drugs. If guns are banned, then we will get bombs and other ways to harm, unless we help the people who become so estranged from other people and from their constructive impulses.

    • James LeCroy

      There needs to be at least one armed person at every school.

      • Crysania

        I think you missed the point of the article.

    • Bey

      Well said. Most of the news on the web is missing the mental health aspect of this case and is sensationalizing the gun control aspect. It is nice to see a more responsible and reasoned article.

    • eslaporte

      The larger issue of mental health needs to be connected to health care access and the health care debate in America. Did these shooters have heath insurance that could pay for mental health care?

      Also – the mental health industry in our country is going in the wrong direction!
      It is now allied with Big Pharma to give out pills for normal reactions to life’s problems. Are you a low income mother who is anxious about your situation? Well – you need a bottle of pills for you “anxiety disorder!” The homeless are not depressed because of their situations, nope, but because they have bad brain chemistry!

      Let’s bring our mental health care system out of the influance of Big Pharma- and reorient it towards expanding FREE mental health services in the community.

      • Payton Blake

        Some people are homeless because of mental illness, not the other way around. Yes, some medications are prescribed too much or to the wrong people. Some could be formulated better. But for those that they really do help….denying them that option would be a mistake.

    • bosworth

      I would bet that the perpetrator was on legal anti-depressant drugs; that have the pesky side-effect of homicidal/suicidal intentions. Why don’t we draw our attention to the pharmaceutical companies & the poisons they are putting in relativley normal, healthy bodies? Guns are not the problem.

    • CriticalDragon1177

      I can see why people would bring up the subject of mental health after this horrible shooting. Given the fact Adam Lanza may well have been completely sane when he committed this atrocity, based on what we know, better mental health services might not have done any good.

      Regardless I feel bad for all the innocent people who were murdered by that maniac, as well as all the parents who lost their children.

    • William Trew Merrick

      Brilliant work! I’m so relieved to see someone out there is shining light on this angle. Thank you so much, Briana!

    • Naomi

      I totally agree with Bosworth. According to the statistics provided by government agencies, the number of mass shooters on psychotropic drugs is alarming. There is a direct correlation between anti-depressants and homicidal ideation. How many lives have to be lost before the government wakes up and stops these atrocities from occurring?

    • Tucker

      When I was on Ritalin/Concerta I was often feeling angry and violent. I felt suicidal as well.

    • scout wallace

      surely gun control AND mental health are both relevant?? it’s not like there’s a ‘limit one indicator of deep seated problem per problem horrible tragedy’ thing going on here.

    • Beth Luv

      These shooters were ALL on psychiatric drugs. It’s psych meds that need to be banned, not guns.

      • Payton Blake

        I would agree that sometimes, medications are not the answer, particularly when each person responds differently to medication and some people are all too ready to prescribe them.
        However, some people really are helped by medication and should not have their access to them blocked, and they should not be made to feel defective or bad for using them if they really do help, just because some people weren’t responsible in prescribing them or taking them.

        I struggled for years with whether or not to go back on ADD medication, because of the stigma attached to it and the assumptions that ADD was fake and parents were just trying to medicate normal children they didn’t want to deal with. While I have no doubt that may have been an issue, I went through extensive testing and evaluation when I was younger before the diagnosis, and before it because the “in” thing. I feared what people would think of me, especially after remembering those that insisted I would get addicted to it when I was in High School (hell, I forgot to take it many times) and that nothing was wrong with me, I was just lazy, or I just needed to grow a backbone (concerning the social issues that go along with ADD). People tried to make me feel like a horrible person for trying to make my life more normal.
        So after years I finally decided to bite the bullet and try to get back on medication. I feel great now, mostly. Since I also have anxiety issues it doesn’t help all of the social problems I have, but I feel “normal.” I cried the first day I was back on it, because I no longer felt so disconnected from the rest of the world. I didn’t feel so much like I was on my own little island, unable to interact with those around me, unable to remember things, unable to start or finish simple tasks. I cried because I could integrate better with society and people would be less likely to treat me like I was lazy and incompetent, or even an idiot. I no longer felt like an outsider looking in. Not to say it was a cure, but the help it provides is so tremendous…

        But you would take that away from me….you would take away the Effexor that helped my brother be happy again and helped him deal with depression and anxiety after his time in Iraq, so he could finish school. You would take away the Prozac that kept my mother from committing suicide and helped her to find joy in life and get a new job. You would take away the medication my schizophrenic friend took that helped him integrate into society and earn a job in the bioengineering field. And the medication that helps my bipolar friend in raising her children without the fear that her problem will damage them.

        How about instead, we do more research into what does and doesn’t help, better medications, and better procedures for deciding who would benefit from them.

      • Crysania

        I don’t agree that psych meds need to be banned. Many people are on them and they’ve saved their lives. However, I do think that people who are given these meds need to be carefully watched for any sort of side effects. Too often they’re simply prescribed with no followup care.

    • Lastango

      Here’s a link to Clayton Cramer’s thoughtful, well-researched piece on how the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill has driven an increase in violent crime.
      In short, we’re going to have to start building mental hospitals again so we can get these people off the streets, into a place where they can get treatment.

      • Payton Blake

        The problem with institutions are they have a bad history of mistreating the patients rather than helping them. In some cases people who didn’t even need institutionalization were left in mental hospitals to rot because people didn’t understand what was wrong, and they feared anything different. I had a great uncle that was committed to an institution for tourettes. He was otherwise a healthy, adjusted man who functioned just fine, but people thought he was weird, and weird was dangerous to them. So they took away his freedom..

        Having access to mental health care no matter their situation would be helpful, but ensuring that they do not become victims would need to be high priority.

        Many people with mental health issues or other disorders that may present as mental illnesses can live very normal lives and are not a danger to anyone. Often, the “normal, healthy” people are more of a danger to them, than they are to the public.

        The stigma attached to those seeking mental health care is also a deterrent to getting help and articles like this, sadly, do not help.

      • Lastango

        Carefully-reasoned “articles like this” help by supporting and focusing intelligent discussion. That’s part of moving toward solutions that actually work.

    • whitewater

      I’m discussing the exact same mental health issue with my family members and friends. I keep wondering why we keep pushing for more laws on firearms when we already have so many laws in place. The Adam Lenza catastrophic slaughter of innocent 6 year old children begs the question of mental health and how can we improve the detection and treatment of mental health issues. This is a dicey area because it involves a complex set of existing laws but it seems obvious we need to give it some serious attention. Access to tools for mental health treatment and support is lagging badly in our country. The continued cuts to “entitlements” ( a GOP chosen term not mine) which includes health care (both physical and mental) virtually guarantees that we will endure more of these kinds of horrific events. One has to wonder what is more costly, treating the mentally ill or allowing mass slaughters of innocent victims in our society?

    • andruwww

      This is not a mental health issue, its an availability issue. If Adam’s mother did not have a stockpile of semi-automatic weapons, and high capacity clips, he wouldn’t have had access to tools that he used to shoot 20 children 2-10 times each. Yes, mental health is at issue to the actions of Lanza, and you can argue that he could have used other weapons, but without access to his mother’s .223 he wouldn’t have been able to shoot an entrance into the school and slaughter 26 people in 10min. Those are the facts.

    • CA Isaacson

      Yes it could have been stopped> 1st guns should not have been where he had such easy access to them.2nd he should have been in a mental hospital , prob a long time ago, but since he was considered an adult, the best his mother was prob told by mental health was to find a support group for herself. Mental health should be better trained at knowing who is a little bipolar and who is a total wack job and then take steps to get them help. My daughter is very sevely mentally ill. She goes to mental health when things get REALLY bad, she tells them just her nerves are bad, she does not tell them she thinks I am an alien pod , and she is the presidents daughter and I have kidnapped her, or that she hears voices n fights with them. She does not tell them all the sick thoughts she walks around daily having, like some one thinks she drank blood, and some thing is eating her and she is not human but a piece of meat. This is no joke!! They won’t let me tell them what she really thinks because she is an adult. And whats really scary and you can believe me , is that there are many like her out walking around with these delusional thoughts and mental health just says NOTHING we can do they are adults and they have rights. I live in mi all our mental hospitals were closed down.