Although speculation about the mental stability of school shooters has generally ensued after each major incident, there seems to be no clear answer regarding whether those who perpetrate crime and violence on school and campus property are prone to suffer from some type of mental illness. Many times perpetrators have not been officially diagnosed with a mental illness, although they may be suffering from an undiagnosed problem. In Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, the authors of this book identify mental illness as one of the five main factors that result in rampage school shootings. Most attackers have shown some history of suicidal attempts or thoughts, or a history of feeling extreme depression or desperation. In its analysis of school shootings, the U.S. Secret Service found that in more than three-fourths of major attacks, the perpetrators were struggling to cope with a significant life change, such as a breakup with a girlfriend, some type of public humiliation, or a loss of status. Other research suggests that prescription drugs, although intended to address an individual’s mental illness, may actually push some people to commit violence.
After a shooting incident, pundits and the general public often point to what seem to be obvious signs of mental illness. In a recent publication, journalist Dave Cullen sought to debunk a number of myths about the Columbine massacre of April 1999. In his book titled Columbine, Cullen highlighted the role of mental illness, asserting that it was not pressure from bullying that prompted Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to shoot 14 of their classmates. Instead, Cullen wrote, Klebold suffered from depression and was suicidal; Harris, he said, was a cold, calculating, homicidal psychopath. Harris was taking the antidepressant Luvox at the time of the massacre.
Jeff Weise, who killed 10 people (including himself) and injured seven others at Red Lake High School on Red lake Indian Reservation in Montana, had spent time in a psychiatric facility the summer before the shooting and had been banned from Red Lake High School five weeks earlier due to his odd and threatening behavior. Weise had been taking the antidepressant Prozac.
In cases where a diagnosis of mental illness was made, many have questioned why this information was not more widely distributed or why preventive measures were not taken by school or campus authorities. For instance, when Seung-Hui Cho killed 27 students, five professors, and then himself at Virginia Tech University, it became clear almost immediately that he suffered from some type of mental illness that had been previously identified by university officials. One of his former professors, who was at the time co-chair of the English Department, recalls being told by a colleague about Cho’s disturbing writing and odd behavior toward classmates. She began to tutor Cho privately, and her interaction with him reinforced the suspicion that he was dangerous. The professor reported her observations to both the university police and the campus counseling center, but neither offered Cho help because students could not be forced to receive counseling and he had not overtly threatened anyone or himself at the time. Shortly thereafter, Cho threatened to commit suicide and did receive some assistance from an off-campus counseling center, but he was released when he was considered no longer a threat. Later, Cho himself contacted the university’s counseling center. In an odd turn of events, the records of Cho’s visits to the counseling center were missing until July 2009, when they were found at the home of a former counseling center employee. It is unclear why the employee had the files, which showed Cho visited the center several times but never received a specific diagnosis. Because Cho was older than the age of 21, his records were considered private and not even his parents were alerted to the fact that he had sought help.
Privacy laws generally make it difficult to share information–including mental health information–about students that might be prejudicial. Information can be shared when students make threats to themselves or others, but in many cases no such overt threat was made prior to a school attack.
The number of school or campus shooters who had been taking high-potency prescription drugs is disturbing and suggestive of a link between these agents and violence. The examples here include only some of the most infamous shooters. In 1988, Laurie Dann had been taking Anafranil and lithium when she killed one child and injured six in a Winnetka, Illinois, elementary school. Later that same year, 19-year-old James Wilson shot and killed two eight-year-old girls and wounded seven others at an elementary school in Greenwood, South Carolina. Wilson had been taking Xanax, Valium, and five other drugs. Kip Kinkel, a 15-year-old youth in Springfield, Oregon, had been taking both Prozac and Ritalin when he murdered his parents and then killed two students and wounded 22 others at his high school in 1998. In 1989, 25-year-old Patrick Purdy killed five and wounded 30 at an elementary school in Stockton, California. He had been treated with thorazine and amitriptyline. Michael Carneal (age 14), Andrew Golden (age 11), and Mitchell Thompson (age 14) were all reportedly taking Ritalin when they killed students and teachers at their schools. Most recently, Duane Morrison, age 53, shot and killed a girl at Platte Canyon High School in Colorado in 2006; anti-depressants were later found in his vehicle.
It is less likely that there is an association between other forms of school and campus crime and mental illness. No data support the contention that perpetrators of property crime, dating violence, sexual assault, or drug-related crimes are more likely than nonperpetrators to suffer from mental illness.
- Cullen, D. (2010). Columbine. New York: Twelve.
- Newman, K., Fox, C., Roth, W., & Mehta, J. (2005). Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. New York: Basic.
- Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W. (2002). The final report and findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the prevention of school attacks in the United States. Jessup, MD: Education Publications Center, U.S. Department of Education.