May 30, 2022

By Don Sapatkin

Good morning. Today is a particularly somber Memorial Day, coming after two weeks of mass shootings that made use of military-grade weapons. In today’s newsletter, we share a guest essay that looks at the futility of searching for motive in such shootings; what should be done instead, writes Jane Stevens, is to deeply examine a shooter’s life and childhood for lessons that can be applied to help others.

We also share other reflections on the recent shootings, bring you a story on Oregon’s plans to pay people with meth addiction to stay in treatment, and examine New York City’s goal of using social infrastructure to break the isolation of people with mental illness.

Finally, we have some news of our own: Investigative reporter Josh McGhee will be joining MindSite News as a staff reporter covering criminal justice and mental health. Josh comes to us from his most recent role as a reporter at Injustice Watch in Chicago. His latest investigation found that while fewer people were being charged with crimes in Cook County, more of them are Black. Welcome to the team, Josh.


Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff visit a memorial near the site of the supermarket shooting in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

To Prevent Mass Shootings, Stop Hunting for Motive, Start Investigating Shooters’ History of Childhood Adversity

Police didn’t need to search for a motive in the mass shooting that killed 10 Black people and wounded three others in Buffalo, NY, on May 14, writes Jane Stevens in a guest essay. That’s because the shooter, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, provided one in his racist, 180-page diatribe. But searching for a motive as a way to prevent mass shootings is a wasted exercise anyway: It will just get you a useless answer to the wrong question.

The right question is: What happened to this person? What happened to a beautiful baby boy to turn him into an 18-year-old killer spouting racist screed?

In those questions, and in looking at the answers through the lens of childhood experiences – both positive ones and adverse ones – lie true solutions.

In a 2019 Los Angeles Times article, “We have studied every mass shooting since 1966. Here’s what we’ve learned about the shooters,” Jillian Peterson and James Delaney wrote“First, the vast majority of mass shooters in our study experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. The nature of their exposure included parental suicide, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and/or severe bullying.” Continue reading…


Childhood trauma is the foundation

Two mass shootings. Thirty-one people dead. An outpouring of horror, as well as posturing. At MindSite News, we are struggling, along with all of you, to come to grips with the deadly violence that keeps taking place in this country. In that vein, we found some good reporting and analysis we wanted to bring to your attention:

Two researchers who compiled detailed life histories of every mass shooter in the U.S. since 1966 detailed their findings in a recent book, The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic. In an interview with Politico they said their data showed surprisingly consistent patterns – in particular adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) – that are known to raise the risk of mental health issues. 

“Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying,”said Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of criminology at Hamline University and co-president of The Violence Project. “Then you see the build toward hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers. That turns into a really identifiable crisis point where they’re acting differently. Sometimes they have previous suicide attempts.” Mass shootings are always acts of violent suicide, Peterson said, of self-hatred turned outward. 

A substantial percentage of mass shooters previously showed clear signs of mental illness, according to a summary of limited research by the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center, which found a very different pattern for run-of-the-mill homicides. But shooters make up a tiny percentage of mentally ill people, University of Washington psychiatrist Jessica Gold told a MedPage Today interviewer. Like many in her field, Gold believes that focusing on mental illness is an easy way to make sense of the senseless – and avoid grappling with the real, more complicated causes. Blaming violence on the mentally ill, she added, worsens the stigma that prevents some people from seeking help. And in a provocative post for Psychiatric Times, psychiatrist H. Steven Moffic floated the idea that gun violence be considered what he termed a “social psychopathology,” which should be included in the DSM as a new class of psychiatric diagnoses.

Around the country, hundreds of thousands of children’s lives have been changed forever by the mass shootings they survived, with many suffering nightmares and panic attacks, migraines and nausea with every new shooting that occurs. Decades after they witnessed friends and classmates being shot, they opened up to the Washington Post about how their lives are different, scarier and more fragile than they were before. Even kids who were nowhere near the massacres are affected by new ones, Time reported, quoting experts who say that increasingly frequent mass shooter events are saddling even the youngest American schoolchildren with rising levels of anxiety and other mental health problems.

Oregon tries cash rewards to keep people off meth

Addiction to stimulants, especially methamphetamine, is famously hard to treat. The most effective method, according to multiple studies and updated federal protocols, may be contingency management – giving money as a reward for staying clean. Not surprisingly, this approach is both controversial and uncommon in the U.S.

In Oregon, that’s about to change, according to The Lund Report, an independent health news organization. Voters in the state, which has some of the nation’s highest rates of meth use, overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure two years ago that decriminalized possession of small amounts of illict drugs and redirected to addiction services and treatment hundreds of millions of marijuana tax dollars and law enforcement savings.

Studies have found that giving $400 to $500 per patient over a 12-week period can keep meth users engaged with treatment. Expensive? The  Washington State Institute for Public Policy determined that a single patient receiving a total of $600 in incentives would save taxpayers more than $3,000 and provide an overall net economic benefit of more than $23,000. The state has already approved grants of $500,000 to incentivize people to quit drugs and the review process is ongoing. All that new funding makes Oregon a leader in deploying the approach — and a real-life testing ground for rewards-based treatment programs.

New York’s new health commissioner wants to ease the social isolation of the mentally ill

Photo illustration: Shutterstock

New York City is embarking on what newly appointed Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan calls a transformative, systemwide shift in mental health care. Instead of endlessly bouncing people with serious mental illness in and out of acute care and hospital stays as they lurch from crisis to crisis, Vasan wants to move the city “towards a model of prevention and recovery centered on breaking isolation.”

In a speech last week in the garden of Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, Vasan outlined his vision for mental health and addiction services and described a new program that will embed mental health clinics at nine existing community locations around the city, according to Gothamist, a website run by New York Public Radio.

For example, Henry Street has long operated an outpatient mental health clinic that shares space with a food pantry, a pottery studio, and a yoga and meditation space. Now the program’s staffers are starting to move outside the clinic walls to meet patients in their homes or other community locations.

Vasan championed such approaches as president and CEO of Fountain House, a clubhouse for people with serious mental illnesses with sites in Manhattan and the Bronx. In his speech, he called for “investing in social infrastructure – literal places and destinations where people can build community and end social isolation. Where they can develop direct human connections as well as connection to health care, housing, opportunity, and purpose, on paths to recovery and to learning to live with a serious mental illness.”


The Department of Veterans Affairs launched an innovation challenge worth $20 million in prizes for the best ideas to prevent veteran suicides, reported. Suicides declined by 7% from 2018 to 2019   but were still nearly 60 percent higher than in 2001, according to the latest VA data. For active duty personnel, Defense officials told a House hearing they are working to reduce wait times for mental health services by adding counselors, increasing telehealth visits and trying to match “supply with demand,” according to Military Times.

Illustration: Shutterstock

People with allergies may be prone to anxiety and depression for a range of reasons explored by the health information site Medical News Today. Allergies may also trigger inflammation (since substances that trigger the body also affect the brain) and isolation (since allergic reactions lead many to avoid socializing). The allergic may also sleep less and fear being judged, while anxiety and fear can plague parents of kids with severe food allergies worried they’ll have a severe reaction while away from home.

People who spent time in prison are far more likely to attempt suicide later in life than people who were never incarcerated, with the odds more than double for juvenile and  female offenders, according to a research paper published in Community Mental Health Journal. People in prison have high rates of mental health and substance abuse issues and most lack access to care before and just after release, when suicide rates are known to be higher,  the authors said in a State University of New York-Albany press release.

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. And if you’re a veteran, press 1.

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Rob WatersFounding Editor

Rob Waters, the founding editor of MindSite News, is an award-winning health and mental health journalist. He was a contributing writer to Health Affairs and has worked as a staff reporter or editor at...