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.

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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.