Weeks after a 20-year-old resident of Newtown, Connecticut, went on a shooting spree in an elementary school, the public is still grappling with trying to understand how such a tragedy could happen.
On Dec. 14, Adam Lanza, armed with an assault rifle and hand guns, broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and shot and killed 20 children and six staff members before killing himself. He left behind no note and little evidence explaining his actions. And that is haunting authorities, as well as the public, according to James Seaman, Ph.D, who has been a psychologist with the Toledo Public Schools District for over 30 years.
“The teachers and students have a lot of concerns,” said Seaman, who went to the district in the wake of the shootings. “Everyone was beside themselves. They’re in need of a lot of support and discussion about what happened. They couldn’t believe such a thing could occur. Students had many questions that they wanted answered. Closure hasn’t occurred yet. We don’t have a motive as to why [Lanza] would do this. They want to know why he did this.”
Lanza’s behavior is further complicated by reports that he had Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild type of autism that typically does not pose a threat to the public, said Seaman, who is also an Oregon city councilman.
“His diagnosis is not normally considered with that kind of violence,” he said.
“I work with kids with Aspergers, and they’re really not what you would call violent,” said Seaman. “People with Aspergers show extreme social awkwardness. They have difficulties with peer relationships, difficulties in social situations. It’s more than just shyness. They have a difficult time relating to their peer group and being accepted. Frequently, they have unusual behaviors and interests. They have `splinter skills’ – they might be very adept in math and very weak in the social science area. They have a lot of difficulty adjusting to changes. They expect a certain routine. When that routine is changed, they get somewhat upset and are under a lot of stress. Sometimes they don’t understand a sense of humor. They are very concrete and rigid in their thinking.”
Despite their social awkwardness, they can be productive members of society “in the right situations with the proper supervision,” said Seaman.
“People right now are dying for a motive so they can bring some closure to the situation. No clear motive for his behavior has been expressed to the public. Lanza had no close friends that we could talk to and find out why he did it,” said Seaman.
Lanza’s mother, whom Lanza killed prior to his murderous rampage at the school, may have been the person to whom he was closest, and could have provided the information needed to help the public understand what the shooter was going through, said Seaman.
“The only clue we have is that his mother once said to a babysitter never turn your back on him. That’s not real specific, but that’s all we know,” said Seaman.
The name “Sandy Hook” now evokes memories of similar mass shootings in recent history, such as Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Aurora, Colorado. Mass shootings like this were rare before the 1960s. So why have there been more mass shootings than ever before in our history?
Seaman believes it started to increase at a time when the government “deinstitutionalized” those with mental illness, and cut funding for mental health programs, making access to needed treatment more difficult.
“There are some people who do need to have very close supervision, or institutionalization,” said Seaman. “We used to have people who had strong mental health needs in a hospital where they could get a lot of support and care, away from mainstream society. But we don’t do that now because of the cost. Deinstitutionalization is an issue in this whole scenario. I don’t like the idea of `institutionalizing’ people. It’s kind of a harsh word. There was mistreatment of some people in institutions. But there was probably some good that occurred, also. The new idea is nobody needs to be institutionalized. We can better deal with them in an outpatient support system through mental health services. But it’s difficult to get high quality mental health services on a continual basis. We did not pick up the cost of mental health services when we made those changes in our society. And insurance companies don’t want to pay for mental health services. It’s difficult to get them to pay for counseling sessions. This is sometimes associated with what we are seeing occur in our society, like at Columbine. Now we have Sandy Hook. We are perhaps paying a toll. If you deinstitutionalize, you have to have a massive support system in mental health services. The taxpayer would have to take care of it. We’re not there yet.”