Can Experts Determine Who Might Be a Mass Killer?

Summary: Researchers explore the “red flags” we commonly associate with those who become mass killers, and how possible it is to identify the signs of problematic behaviors before a person commits a crime with multiple victims.

Source: The Conversation

After mass shootings, people naturally search for answers. We also want to find the root cause.

One subject that often arises is mental illness. People, and politicians, raise questions about “red flags,” or warning signs a person might commit a violent act, and whether someone could have intervened to stop a mass murderer.

Psychiatrist Arash Javanbakht answers some questions about mental illness, mass murder and whether it’s possible to prevent horrific shootings.

1. Is a person who commits mass murder mentally ill?

Not necessarily. In psychiatry, we do not have diagnostic criteria for a mass murderer, terrorist or violent person. There are psychiatric conditions that may include anger, aggression, impulsivity, violence, or lack of remorse or empathy among their symptoms. But there is no one illness that would be found in all mass murderers, or murderers in general.

On the top of the list of the conditions that may lead to violent acts are substance use and personality disorders, specifically antisocial personality disorder.

This condition, commonly known as “psychopathy” among the public, entails disrespect for social norms and law; deceitfulness; impulsivity; aggression; lack of responsibility; and remorse.

It is highly prevalent among the criminal and prison population, and less often treated in the psychiatric clinic. That is because no one comes to the clinic asking us to fix their “lack of conscientiousness.”

Another condition is when a psychotic person has paranoid or persecutory delusions with a conviction that others are there to harm them. These conditions are rare.

In general, most of the psychiatric conditions that affect nearly a fourth of the population, such as depression, anxiety, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, hair picking, etc., do not increase the risk of violence toward others.

As I have noted before, only a small percentage of violent acts are committed by the mentally ill, and violent behavior does not have to necessarily be coming from mental illness.

Putting a label on something can only be helpful when we are able to treat it, or when it proves the person is not responsible for the act due to the illness.

Furthermore, there could always be coincidence: A person who commits violent acts could have depression, and he or she also could have eczema. But the correlation would not necessarily be causational.

2. What is the difference between extremism and mental illness?

Broadly, a mental illness is a diagnosable condition that significantly changes one’s emotions, thinking, or behavior, and that leads to dysfunction or distress. There are more than 200 of them listed in the diagnostic manual of psychiatry. The profession does not have psychiatric diagnoses for extremism or terrorism.

This shows a shadowy looking man
The person who does commit a crime is an outlier from society in terms of their behavior. Image is in the public domain

The person who does commit a crime is an outlier from society in terms of their behavior. People who are overly suggestible, isolated and angry, based on their social and environmental circumstances may get attracted to dangerous ideologies, or join a criminal group or cult. That does not qualify them for a mental illness diagnosis.

I have previously discussed humans’ tribal nature, and that in the wrong context, especially when fear circuitry in a person’s brain is hijacked by the group leaders, people can be manipulated to heinous acts in service to the tribe’s ideology.

3. Are there ‘red flag’ behaviors that can indicate risk?

Yes. In general, a person’s previous actions are great predictors of their future actions: most often, history of violence predicts future violence. However, hindsight is 20/20.

We often hear retrospectively that people remember what was wrong with a person who committed a terrible crime, while others could never think “such a nice person” would do what they did.

But in general, history of violence or abuse, substance use and history of self-harm would be among the red flag signs that the person may act violently toward others or themselves. I could also add history of paranoid or persecutory delusions to that.

The good news is that, to prevent a violent person from access to firearms, we do not need an established diagnosis of a mental illness. The history of unreasonable violence itself is enough. These measures may not prevent some of the mass shootings, but they can help with a lot of murders and deaths by suicide.

About this crime and psychology research news

Author: Arash Javanbakht
Source: The Conversation
Contact: Arash Javanbakht – The Conversation
Image: The image is in the public domain

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.
  1. Re, Mass Murdeters.

    I agree with the psychiatrist, lots of this comes from feelings of anger aggression and isolation.
    But you don’t need to be a psychiatrist to work this out, anyone with some common Sense and intelligence would know, so that when these feelings, especially if they’ve been going on for a long time and building up,and then they get bottled up and then finally in the end they can explode, BOOM !! and this is the end result !!!

    He is also right in saying that he isn’t really for labels and neither am I, labels are for parcels not for people !!

    IF society is really interested in tackling this problem then they need to look for the root cause and the root cause is usually found in early childhood and also in the genetic makeup !

    It is also a fact that many people such as Hitler and Mussolini were victims of child abuse and Hitler was certainly a mass murderer in the tens of thousands.

    To try to prevent this as far as possible from happening in the future or even getting worse there has to be a change in the mindset of all who are involved with children, that obviously includes parents but also social workers teachers people who work in children’s homes etc etc.

    There also needs to be a joined up approach with the various services such as hospitals,GPS social services, teachers and parents as well as friends and relatives of the children.

    Of course we all know that some people lie and will go to any lengths to try to cover things up, and children especially when very young are at a huge disadvantage, many not being believed and if they can’t yet talk the situation is even worse..

    I know for a fact that in Germany,when this is suspected it is taken seriously and social workers are dispatched to the house or flat to talk to the parents in the first instance to offer help if there are real problems and to basically monitor what’s going on. The parents are expected to co-operate with this if they have admitted that things are not great.

    The idea is to support the parents in many different ways,emotionally and practically and to keep an eye on how things are going and to listen to the child and take seriously what they say as well.

    Often this works and things can get a lot better but in the few instances that it doesn’t and the abuse is ongoing and the children are suffering then they are taken into care where they remain until they are 18 and in most cases the parents will not be able to see them again until they are 18.

    There is not a perfect solution to these problems,but perhaps this one is a good way forward, it’s fine knowing the causes or knowing the symptoms but it’s another thing to actually do something about it and this is why I quite admire the German system because they act they don’t just talk and because of this children are safer because of it and hopefully will not go on to commit these horrendous crimes!!

    Sent from the all new AOL app for Android

  2. I’m always fascinated with how your writing staff and editors create such intriguing topics, however I think you may have missed watching the six-episode series on Apple TV called “Black Bird” hi-lighting how a real serial killer – based on a true story – can function in a medical hospital for the criminally insane.
    I wish I could review the in-depth medical records for this individual, but of course I know that HIPPA wouldn’t allow it. My background is in medical sciences – as an associate Professor of Natural Sciences – and I wonder just how the serial killer’s “Hollywood Diagnosis” of Blue Baby Syndrome matches up with a genetic analysis of the neural defects that most probably contributed to his condition – and the tragic deaths of so many innocent young people. My question is: Could a professional fetal analysis (with predictive A.I.) have avoided these tragedies? Would the proponents of the Roe vs Wade argument have had a viable, legal and moral responsibility to abort?

Your email address will not be published.