Mental Illness? Or, anger?



Each time we have to endure another horrible shooting like the one at Umpqua Community College, there are calls for more treatment of mental illness.

Yes, by all means. Mental health treatment is inadequate. Cuts in mental health services is short-sighted and foolish. Chicago recently closed half of its mental health centers. Nothing good will come of that!



But mental illness has nothing to do with preventing tragedies. There is very little connection between mental illnesses and violence.

I do not know if shooter Chris Harper Mercer will turn out to be mentally ill or not. Apparently he was twenty-six and living with his mother, but in these troubled times that isn’t as significant as it should be. So far we aren’t hearing of any mental health treatment for him. Early reports do indicate “hateful” writings. He was certainly angry at Christians, specifically targeting them in his classroom shooting. He may have been angry at people of other races. But that doesn’t mean he was mentally it, just angry.

Anger. That is the common element in these shootings.

When I say that, people are offended. They argue that everyone gets angry, and that it is helpful in righting injustice.

I partially agree. Everyone does get angry. It is the way our brains are organized. Fight and flight are two deeply embedded responses. They are hard-wired in our brains, mine and yours.

Anger also helps people get their way. A new study suggests this works for men but not for women. In a forthcoming article in Law and Human Behavior, in mock jury deliberations, men who showed anger were more influential, but women who showed anger were less. So men might unwittingly be rewarded for acting irritated or offended; perhaps women less so.

But is anger helpful in righting wrongs? There I am much more skeptical. While some people placate angry people (thus rewarding them), others resist anger and become angry themselves. So angry demonstrations are likely to cause some to harden and resist. Nonviolent resistance seems to have a better track record. It was the powerful strategy that Martin Luther King Jr. adopted, and with great success.

Being rewarded for anger makes aggression a go-to strategy for getting one’s way. This leads to the angry person becoming habitually, chronically irritated.

You might think of anger as a state, an emotional reaction to a situation that is threatening. But you can also think of it as a trait, a habit or default.

Now imagine that mental illness is on a spectrum, from highly flourishing people on one end and mentally ill on the other. But suppose that anger isn’t on that spectrum? Could there be mentally ill people who are also habitually angry, and some who aren’t.

Since we don’t officially think of anger as an illness, we normalize it. I think that may be a mistake, and a dangerous one at that. The problem is that the frontal lobes of the brain seem to shut down when we feel angry. Since the frontal lobes are vital in problem solving, understanding others, and common sense, we might say that getting angry makes us unable to access those judgement / common sense attributes.

Certainly, damage to the frontal lobes (especially on the left side) goes with anger. On the other hand, chronic anger can also reduce frontal lobe influence over our behavior.

In other words, getting angry makes us stupid.

Reflect on this question: Have you ever done something while very angry that later had some bad consequences? Have you  done something you later regretted?

When I ask groups that question, everyone admits that is true of them. Our brains are wired for anger and when we feel angry, our frontal lobes are sidelined. Our high-speed common sense and creativity are disabled!

Now imagine a chronically angry young man. His sensitivity to others is reduced. He can’t understand how others feel. He ruminates on angry themes. Apparently, Chris Harper Mercer was ruminating on how awful Christians were. Not an intelligent strategy, focusing on how other people are bad or wrong. That isn’t going to lead to anything good.

Yet society seems to think anger is acceptable, even virtuous. Hollywood glorifies anger; video games glorify violence. Does anyone see a problem here?

What might help?

This is not a government problem. I don’t want a government that tells me how I should feel. This is a social problem, one that has a spiritual solution. I propose that a time such as this does not call for more mental health service, as valuable as that would be. It is not a time for more government rules and regulations, some of which might trigger more resentment. It is a time for prayer and seeking spiritual guidance. It is a time for us to admit that our culture seems to be unmanageable and our moral guides are absent. It is a time for us to seek a change of heart.

The greatest spiritual guide ever told us to turn the other cheek and go the second mile. He told us to pray for our enemies. The explosion of anger seems to me to go hand in hand with the decrease in spiritual influence in society. Religions seem to be losing their influence. Militant atheists to the contrary notwithstanding, religious practice goes along with less anger, less substance abuse, and less emotional disorder. In mental health, predicting violence has three components: trait anger, substance abuse, and access to weapons. Religious practice reduces two of the three.

Frankly, it is a time for us to stop thinking of anger as anything but a very dangerous emotion that makes us stupid.


PS: I just realized that some of my thinking, the good part, was inspired by the great teacher, Marty Seligman who wrote an essay following the Sandy Hook shootings. All thanks, Marty.

By |2016-11-26T16:03:39+00:00October 2nd, 2015|Articles, Enhancing Mental Health|18 Comments

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  1. Jane October 2, 2015 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    I appreciate these comments. I work with crises every day, sometimes the effect of unpredictable events, sometimes the result of choices people make. In a few rare situations, mental illness lies at the root of situations where people have such a distorted view of reality that damaging actions ensue. But for most others in my practice, the root is anger, deep resentment, entitlement, and a lack of awareness that others have serious struggles, too, no matter how charmed their lives may appear on the surface . Unfortunately, psychology has contributed to some extent to this situation (particularly “pop” psychology). It is time for some serious reflection on how our profession has enabled and justified victim mentality and anger, and how we might offer alternatives to a society that has forgotten them. I appreciate this timely blog very much. Thanks for posting it.

    • Dr.J October 4, 2015 at 7:44 am - Reply

      Very kind of you. Many thanks.

  2. Alan Reber October 2, 2015 at 8:40 pm - Reply

    I am reminded of a plaque that my grandmother had in her house. It probably dates back 100 years, and while I have not seen it in over 30 years, I still remember what it said: “Anger is a wind that blows out the lamp of the mind.” There definitely is truth to that, but I would argue that anger is not what fills the mind of a killer like this one. As I see it, when someone is angry and holds onto the anger and lets it grow and breed, as it were, it births something much deadlier than anger, and that is rage. While anger can lead someone to wish another person was dead, rage (or fury) is what leads a person to act on what had been only thoughts and feelings. It is blind, violent, hard-to-control, and explosive. Anger is only a problem if one allows is to become an all-consuming passion of one’s life, and then that passion can lead ton rage, and rage to murder. The really interesting question, though, is why do some people progress from resentment to anger to rage to murder while others do not? (and since you brought up the topic of religion, what is the role-if any-of Evil in cases such as this?

    • Dr.J October 2, 2015 at 10:26 pm - Reply

      Great questions. Rage is generally, maybe always evil. It involves destroying others. I can’t see how that is good.

  3. Andrew October 2, 2015 at 11:19 pm - Reply

    I good exploration of anger. But I can’t help but notice the absence of reference to the elephant in the room. Gun controls. I live in Australian and I expect we have as many angry people as does the US. But thankfully we have very very few gun related deaths. I wonder why.

    • Dr.J October 4, 2015 at 7:44 am - Reply

      I am doubtful about gun control because the US has a constitutional guarantee that owning guns is a right. To change that requires a constitutional amendment, almost impossible to achieve. Also the US has a meta-concept that rights do not belong to the government, they belong innately to the people. With those deeply embedded beliefs in the US culture, and with the number of guns in our society, it seems irrational to argue in favor of more gun control. The US is a totally unique society in those ways. Canada and Australia don’t serve as examples for us. They don’t have the same values.

      The concept of gun ownership, historically, is to counterbalance the power of government. This is a shocking and even horrifying idea to many, but a deep reading of history shows that is the case. Since interstate commerce is also constitutionally guaranteed, an area of high gun control like Chicago is also extremely high in gun violence. People who want guns can get them from other states, leaving only the law abiding unarmed. So the easy answer, grab everyone’s guns (a la Canada, for example) doesn’t work in a far larger and more ungovernable group like US citizens.

      It reminds me of Donald Trump saying he will deport all the illegal aliens in the US. It is an astonishingly unrealistic idea. And while it might achieve what is wanted (in this case, get jobs back into the hands of US citizens), it seems so unreachable that it becomes a fantasy.

  4. Ann Kramer October 3, 2015 at 5:42 am - Reply

    Anger is an emotion–and one that we have to help children learn how to manage effectively. Cognitive-behavioral therapy offers many great tools to help us teach clients who–for whatever reason–did not learn how to manage anger and thus are limiting their lives. In case after case of these mass shootings, we see young men who have not been taught this who then turn their anger into a ‘demolition derby’. The anger comes up but its connected to a thought process that results in rage and destruction.

    The isolation of so many men–in a culture that does such a poor job of enabling them to process their feelings and learn how to use them effectively–mixed with the availability of guns is a recipe for disaster. We need to make visible ways that these men can find better solutions through counseling, support and an awareness that managing feelings is a skill they can teach themselves with support by the counseling professions.

    All of these men can be helped–and our society improved. We need to make this solution as visible to them as the gun industry that is currently their ‘solution of choice’. They kill in desperation/isolation and fear due to their poorly developed ‘self’. Knowing no other way to turn once they get caught in their ‘demolition derby’ of anger–the resulting ‘crash’ ends up on national news and often their death too.

  5. Michael October 3, 2015 at 6:14 am - Reply

    Hey Lynn, thanks for de-pathologizing the situation. I’m curious – so you think there is ANY evidence for ANY psychological issue being an “illness”? Or would you agree more with the mental illness label being a metaphor?

    The original definition of a brain illness was neurological illness. Then came the idea of “mental illness” (which by definition isn’t a neurological illness so can only this be an illness of a non-physical mind, however that’s possible).

    Neuroplastic changes, genetic influences, and pain do not alone serve as criteria for illness either. Love leaves neuronal changes. Intelligence has genetic influences. And people who can’t feel any pain don’t usually live long.

    I struggle to find any science to back up the illness metaphor – but there is a lot of science suggesting it’s highly unhelpful (what better way of installing a stable attribution of a problem than with this metaphor. Brett Deacon has showed the chemical imbalance myth leads to more aroma, pessimism etc too).

    So curious on your take, since this blog post presupposes that mental illness is a valid, scientific concept – but I know you’re a guy who has unique and interesting perspectives.

    Thanks Lynn and hope you’re well 🙂


    • Dr.J October 4, 2015 at 7:34 am - Reply

      Michael smokes me out here. I actually think it is very complicated. Clearly schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism have a stronger biological component. Yet even there, to use the metaphor of “illness” is dangerous because labels limit what we can do. If I say “illness” I start to think of taking pills. If depression or anxiety are illnesses, the subtle framing is that they need pills. Yet the pills are not terribly effective, especially once you pull out the placebo effect. If they are bad habits, then mental health workers who rely on psychotherapy are much more central.

      I still find some mental health professionals who believe the “chemical imbalance” idea, but practically no psychiatrists. The serotonin hypothesis has been pretty much refuted. While it plays a role, the role is NOT powerful or causal, but rather seems epiphenominal, something that is a result and not a cause of anything.

  6. Kevin October 3, 2015 at 6:17 am - Reply

    Jane: “It is time for some serious reflection on how our profession has enabled and justified victim mentality and anger, and how we might offer alternatives to a society that has forgotten them”

    Right on Jane!

    We change our profession by doing what many of us have been doing. Stand up to political correctness, apply shame and stigma, stop glorifying victims, and do not feed destructive entitlement with empathy.

    This is what our surgeon general should be doing and what our NIMH grants should be funding. This is what our preachers should be preaching.

  7. Steven October 3, 2015 at 8:02 am - Reply

    Dear Lynn,
    I have a couple of responses to your post. I agree that when we let anger hijack our bodies and run the show, that the results are consistently negative, both for the individual and everyone around him. It is however, possible, to have a relationship with the part of us that is angry and to even appreciate its good intentions such as discovering its efforts to protect the shame filled parts of us. To blanketly view anger as something that just makes us stupid, cuts off the possibility of discovering its intricacies, and actually sets up the potential for another internal war within us.

    Also, using Australia as an example. In 1996, a gunman killed 35 people there and the outcry from the populace resulted in sweeping gun control legislation. In the 18 years before this incident, Australians endured 18 mass shootings. Since the legislation, firearm related deaths plummeted and mass shootings became largely a thing of the past. To say that this is not a time for government intervention defies the evidence of not just Australia but other developed countries also.

    My rant notwithstanding, I do appreciate the wisdom of so many of your posts, particularly around parenting and also especially appreciate your pioneering efforts in tracking of clinical outcomes and enhancing the status and accountability of our profession.


    Steven Benjamin

    • Dr.J October 4, 2015 at 7:48 am - Reply

      I try to respond to this idea that Andrew also brings up. Same response as to Andrew. The bottom line: I’d like to think of things we CAN do and gun control is not one of those things.

      I like the idea of “anger makes you stupid” because it can be taught to middle schoolers and high schoolers. That is something we can do. You are correct about the underlying parts, but I can’t see how I can easily convey those ideas outside of a therapeutic relationship. I would like to formulate it as something simpler.

  8. Bryce October 4, 2015 at 1:03 am - Reply

    It is sad to me that our leaders rushed in and removed the shooters facebook page. Thus denying us any ability to analyze the situation for ourselves. Now we will have the situation politically dissected and handed down long after anyone wants to discuss it.

    What I didn’t see anyone mention above was the shooting Australia had October 2, the day after Obama used them as an example of “safety.” Also no one is mentioning how Sweden just had a public stabbing in an IKEA on Aug 11. These public attacks are seemingly either motivated by an extremist religion like Radical Islam, or by suicidal people who want to emulate their favorite video game. They happen everywhere in the world, except for Dallas Texas on May 4th, in Dallas two men attempted to carry out a public shooting, and they got killed by a rent-a-cop before they got out of the car.

    • Dr.J October 4, 2015 at 7:27 am - Reply

      Bryce points out how there is no single answer to this problem. Evil ideologies can only be defeated by better ideas that speak to spiritual yearnings. Suicide also is a spiritual question: Who owns my body? If you say that I do, I will contradict you. No, my family, friends, and social group have a claim on my physical body. When I see myself as deeply connected with them – a spiritual POV – then I recognize I have a need to care for myself for their benefit.

  9. Dr.J October 4, 2015 at 9:28 am - Reply

    Here are two comments that came back to me via email and I am posting them here:

    First one from Ken:

    Dr Johnson,

    Thank you for your very insightful article. I completely agree with you. Anger never got me anywhere. I am very glad that this is generally not part of my normal functioning. However, I would like your feelings about “righteous anger”. Should we not get angry when someone is being hurt, e.g. in a child molestation case or where a woman is being raped or assaulted? I feel anger when I hear of this kind of behavior. I do not want to shoot them or beat them up, but I have the desire to see them removed from society so that they can’t hurt anyone else. Charlie Manson, for example, has to be kept locked up for the rest of his life, i believe.

    Your thoughts?


    Ken, my notion is that anger is a message to someone to stop doing what they are doing, OR ELSE! That is, anger is always a threat-based message.

    That works well, at times. Yet, one cannot change hearts and minds through threats. In our book club, we read “How to Break a Terrorist” written anonymously by a U. S. Air Force interrogator. He essentially made friends with a terrorist in custody and using a kind of friendship-alliance, was able to get the vital information to take out the biggest terrorist in Iraq.

    I am told that even the Dalai Lama can act angry at times so as to get someone’s attention. But in videos, he never uses threat-based intimidation.

    Some people are turned off by religions that emphasize “do this or GO TO HELL!!!” Rightfully so. But the best religious practices certainly use love and compassion for others as the motivator.


    I attempted to leave a comment on your website but it wouldn’t accept my URL so wouldn’t post the comment. Here it is:

    Thank you for your comments on anger. I certainly agree that people with a spiritual focus are likely to be less influenced by their anger. However, you have conflated “religion” and “spirituality.” “Religion,” unfortunately includes such rabid “let’s destroy-anyone-who-disagrees-with-us” violence as the crusades, ISIS, the Inquisition, etc. etc.

    I suspect the great teacher would be disturbed to see what horrors have been propagated in His name.


    It wouldn’t accept your comment? How disappointing! I don’t know why my site is so judgmental!

    Thanks for the comment; I think I will copy it into the comments myself.

    I disagree about the religion part. I didn’t conflate, but I consciously emphasized religion. The best research shows that people involved in religious practice are happier, healthier, and live longer. Historical critiques don’t interest me so much because what I know about history is it is pretty distorted by those who tell the story. When I tell about history, I find myself twisting it to fit my ideas, so I assume others do the same.

    Spirituality is generally thought of as somewhat independent of religion. Spirituality is very helpful, especially in times of trial and difficulty. That is, spirituality is connection with a higher power; religion is a system of practice and discipline, including group membership. To oversimplify, spirituality might be vertical, religion more horizontal.

    So religion is somewhat “better” than spirituality because it includes the community component. But both are associated with better functioning.

    I don’t know enough of ISIS to know how “religious” it is. Clearly they are more of a gangster group, very much like all other authoritarian systems like Nazis and communists. Such systems attract psychopaths, who are more born than made. But a “bad” religion will socialize people into antisocial behavior, sociopaths who are more made than born.

    True believer stuff will support extreme antisocial behavior, it is true. That is independent of religion, since we can pull out lots of examples of non-religious wars and murderous behavior, such as Khmer Rouge that decimated Cambodia and the disasters of Mao’s Red China and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Nazism was explicitly a counter to traditional Judeo-Christian practice, and of course, a Christian minister, Dietrich Bohoeffer, was a great threat to the Nazis. So religious allegiance can be a tremendous source of strength to counter the murderous true believers.

    So I think there is great value in most contemporary religions, although I know Judeo-Christian and Buddhist religions the best. I am very supportive of them. That said, there is a hilarious video of two competing Buddhist groups beating up on each other. True believers are, as Eric Hoffer said long ago, always dangerous.

  10. Bryan October 17, 2015 at 9:16 am - Reply

    quote from the blog post: “Frankly, it is a time for us to stop thinking of anger as anything but a very dangerous emotion that makes us stupid.”

    When I was going through my graduate coursework, one of my instructors mentioned that the DSM didn’t really deal well with anger problems. There wasn’t a clear diagnosis for “rage disorder” although there were things like intermittent explosive disorder and for children oppositional defiance disorder and then of course some personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder included some anger elements. I see at least one reply post here discussing whether mental illness is really an objective thing or more of an artificial, and unhelpful at that, concept. I’ve never really spent a lot of time focusing with a client on their diagnosis. To me, it is more of the idea that something is hurting in their life (i.e. subjective distress), or that they have some challenge (read professionally as “functional limitation”) that they’d like to work on.

    Angry clients, though, often come in my door only when a judge or loved one has told them they must “or else.” So Dr. J’s blog post got me wondering a few things. Whether you call it “mental illness” or something less “labely”, when a person is emotionally and cognitively confounded because of chronic anger (i.e. made stupid because they are always angry) is this outside the scope of our ability to help? In this discussion I’d like to know how helpful on average is anger-management training? Are there different treatments available for chronic anger/rage?

    To my way of thinking, if we accept that chronic anger/rage makes you stupid, then doesn’t that fall within the purview of some distress/functional-limitation model that we treat so many other problems for? If we say no, it is NOT within our purview to treat that, because anger is a choice and not any type of “illness”, do we then lock ourselves out of any future professional discussions about anger? And what about depression and anxiety? Are those not choices that people make? (Maybe a series of micro-choices that lead to depressed or anxious thinking). If one were to accept that depression and anxiety were within the same category, do we then say that these are also not problems worthy of treatment because it’s a choice? Personally I’d agree that often times these are choices that are made, whether you are talking about depression, anxiety, or anger, but I still think I can assist people with those choices.

    Dr. J., I very much value your opinions and posts. My initial reading of your post I was getting the sense of a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” impression of what the post was arguing for. A second read led to more of a sense of a compassionate plea to society to make deeper changes. However, here’s a thought. You mentioned in a reply to this post above about the U.S. being very unique in it’s values and some ideas for change can amount to a fantasy because of our strong traditions and values in this country. I worry that your idea for change as posted in this blog approaches that same area of fantasy because many of us are trained at youth to stand up for yourself, don’t back down from a fight, “the tree of liberty sometimes needs to be watered with the blood of patriots” and so on and so forth. I have those same values, growing up in rural Kansas. Your blog may bring us a little closer to a more compassionate response to adversity, but does it do so at the expense of cutting mental health professionals out of the discussion about anger?

    Keep up the great work, Dr. J.!

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  12. Annabella November 4, 2015 at 1:14 am - Reply

    “Frankly, it is a time for us to stop thinking of anger as anything but a very dangerous emotion that makes us stupid.” I love this statement.I too admit that I ‘ve done things in anger and have regretted it.This article is great.

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