Mental Illness and Social Isolation: Thoughts on Orlando and Other Mass Shootings

There have been an appalling number of mass shootings in the US over the past decade or so. I remember when people used to talk about Columbine like it was a rare occurrence. Not anymore.

With so many mass shootings in the news, two characteristics of gunmen typically stand out: mental illness and a lack of acceptance from self, others, or both. First, let’s talk mental illness.

It’s a personal peeve of mine to hear newscasters and other media outlets hark on suspicions that individual gunmen are mentally ill. In my view, anyone who chooses to open fire on a group of innocent people, whether as a means to social change or as a means of self-expression, is most definitely mentally ill. There is no question about it.

This isn’t to say that all of the gunmen in these cases definitely have diagnosable DSM-V disorders, but more to say that there is obviously something wrong with someone’s thinking if they believe that shooting up a room full of strangers is a good idea. Delusional thinking is a symptom of many more serious mental illnesses, and if there isn’t a DSM diagnosis for someone who harms others because of their delusions, there should be.

Another reason it bothers me to hear so much emphasis placed on the role of mental illness in mass shootings, is because it increases stigma against non-violent people living with mental illness. Suddenly mental illness (along with, of course, guns) becomes the perpetrator, not the individual gunman. Suddenly, it seems, all mentally ill people are dangerous. The emphasis on mental illness really shifts the focus off of the real issue, which, I believe, involves the degree of lifetime tolerance and acceptance experienced by the gunmen.

Although the Orlando shooter seemed to have been influenced by jihadist values, another layer suggests that he may have been profoundly at odds with himself in regards to his sexuality. Although nobody knows the truth about his sexuality, if he was indeed gay, he likely felt pressure from both his family and religion to act against his natural, perfectly okay impulses. His surroundings likely didn’t allow him to truly and freely explore this part of himself, thus likely leading to misplaced anger and hatred targeted toward the part of himself that he was taught to fear and misunderstand the most: homosexuality. Although the attack may have been a demonstration of allegiance to ISIS, I’m sure the bulk of it was likely an expression of all of his pent up frustration, anger, and lack of self-acceptance.

All of that to say that the Orlando shooter probably didn’t experience a lot of tolerance or unconditional acceptance from others in his lifetime. Another factor that seems to come up in many mass shootings is the social isolation and rejection experienced by the gunmen. In regards to the perpetrators of these mass shootings, you often hear that they were quiet, withdrawn, and maybe a little “off.” Most of them seemed to have had trouble keeping friends or even getting close to people at all.

But social acceptance and rejection, especially at an early age, can be largely out of one’s control. Being left out as a toddler or young child can result in stunted social skill development, which can lead to more rejection, subsequent isolation, and possibly bullying in middle school, high school, and even college. This rejection and isolation is very likely to also lead to the mental illness so often observed in mass shooters.

But why do people get left out? A lack of tolerance and acceptance on the part of their peers. Children can be cruel and mean, and will often reject others based on what they have been taught to see as “weird” or “different.” Kids will ruthlessly tease a boy who cries too easily. They will reject a girl they see as “too fat.” Kids will refuse to let someone else play because they aren’t good at sports. All of these rejections are based on characteristics that children have been taught to value, both by their parents and by a society that values stereotypes, aesthetics, athleticism over humanity, compassion, and good-personhood.

On that vein, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we, as a society, and as parents, are responsible for creating these mass shooters. This doesn’t absolve the individual of the guilt of mass murder, nor does it make it alright for people to wreak havoc on others in this way, but it does beg us to look at other sources of responsibility apart from the person and the gun. We, as a whole, are responsible for creating the conditions that lead to social isolation and rejection through the values that we perpetuate regarding how to treat others. By emphasizing academic intelligence, achievement, success, looks, physical abilities, heterosexuality, conformity, and racial hatred over emotional intelligence, prosocial behavior, tolerance and acceptance of others’ differences, respect for individual choice, creativity, healthy self-expression, and self-knowledge, we are marginalizing people who do not fit the mold, and thus we are creating psychological distress and hatred where none ought to exist. This distress and self- and/or other-hatred can lead people to do really harmful things to both self and others, including a mass shooting.

If we really want to stop the culture of gun violence that exists here in America, we need to start by teaching our children to love and accept others. We need to teach our children that how nice you are — how inclusive you are of others — is more important than how good your grades are or how good you are at sports. We need to teach our children that other peoples’ feelings are more important than how skinny they are. And above all, we need to teach our children to love and appreciate themselves rather than try to force them into a mold prescribed by Christianity, Islam, Hollywood, or any other socio-cultural institution.

Because when people truly love themselves for who they are, and have a sense of being valued by others for that true self, they won’t choose to shoot up a room full of innocent strangers.

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Mood Wavelengths?

This is going to (hopefully) be a pretty quick one, since I’m hoping out of the shower and headed out somewhere now, but I had this thought that I just had to put out there:

Does the depressed “us” exist on a different brain “wavelength” than the well “us?”

Like I mentioned in my last post, there are different resting-state networks in the brain that are running during rest. There’s an observed difference between the resting state connectivity of the Default Mode Network (the brain network that is responsible for your thoughts and processing information about yourself) in depressed people and non-depressed people. So far, we know that one of the differences is increased connection between the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the posterior cingulate cortex (pCC) in depressed people. More on what that could mean later.

I recently had a “shift” off of a rumination kick and onto a more healthy line of thinking. I’m actually feeling well right now. As part of trying to learn how to prevent relapse, I’m trying to notice what it feels like in each of these states: ruminating vs. living. One thing that I noticed (and I’m sure most people with recurrent depression will echo this) is that they feel completely separate. Either I’m all ruminating, or all alive and engaged in living my life. It literally feels like I’ve switched from one radio frequency to another — like both constantly exist, but I’ve just tuned my station to the “well” one. This begs the question of whether or not our depressed selves function on an entirely different brain network than our non-depressed selves. Maybe both are functioning at once, and the difference between depression and wellness is which wavelength we have our attention tuned to.

What do you guys think?

 

The Default Mode Network

So I’m sure I’ll write about this in a little more detail later, but I wanted to give you guys an overview of something in neuroscience called the “Default Mode Network.” I stumbled across this concept when I was doing a presentation on an article in one of my graduate seminars this past semester.

I actually ran across it in the context of an article about schizophrenia, but I’m going to talk about it here in the context of depression. The Default Mode Network (DMN) is one of many “resting state” networks in the brain. That is, it’s a network of connected brain areas that is active while you are at rest — or not doing anything. The DMN is basically your running internal dialogue — your thoughts, specifically thoughts related to yourself. The DMN performs self-referential processing as well, helping you evaluate things around you in terms of yourself.

In “healthy” people (read: people without depression), the DMN is most active when at rest and is much less active while engaged in a task. In people with depression, however, the DMN is not only active during both rest and task, but it is also hyperconnected. As far as I know, we’re not sure what these differences in DMN connectivity and activation mean, but scientists think they are connected to rumination, which is a core aspect of depression.

I’m sure I’ll talk about the importance of rumination in initiating and perpetuating depression later, but for now let me just define it. Rumination is repetitive and passive fixation on one’s mood, situation, feelings, or thoughts, with emphasis on the causes and consequences of one’s thoughts. An old Evanescence song describes rumination in depression perfectly:

“In my field of paper flowers
And candy clouds of lullaby (flowers)
I lie inside myself for hours
And watch my purple sky fly over me (flowers).”
-Evanescence, “Imaginary”

A lot more on rumination later.

Here’s where my opinion comes in. It seems to me like the DMN’s overactivity during task translates practically into people with depression (like myself) overthinking even while engaged in something else, thus preventing full engagement in tasks outside of thinking and trying to figure out the reasons why we are depressed. The more you are engaged with thinking about depression, the less available you are to be affected positively by other things.

This is absolutely not to place blame on people with depression (including myself). How can we control our brain activity? My invitation is to notice what your thoughts are the next time you are engaged in a task. Can you focus? Or are you of two minds — one half of you completing the task while the other desperately ruminates on something tied to your depression? This is the DMN acting abnormally. Don’t do anything about it. Just notice. If you’ve had a similar experience, share about it here! I’d love to hear about it 🙂

Hi There!

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Hi internet! My name is Adrian, and I’m here to write about my experience with “mental illness” (I’m not fond of the term, for reasons I hope to get into later) — namely mixed anxiety and depression.

A little bit about me: I had my first bout of depression when I was 14. It began a little closer to dysthymic disorder than full-blown depression. For those that don’t know, dysthymic disorder is a low-level but chronic form of depression lasting at least two years. My first episode lasted nine, turning into major depression after the first two.

My experience with depression inspired me to pursue a degree in psychology, with the hopes of becoming a clinical psychologist. Now I am 26, having just finished my coursework for my Master’s degree in experimental (research) psychology.

I recently experienced my first relapse, preceded by (and coupled with) a severe bout of anxiety. Although I have always been interested in writing about mental illness, my (relatively) recent relapse really refocused my desire to share my story and educate others about the experience of anxiety and depression. I hope I can be a voice for others who are also experiencing these debilitating conditions. If you are someone experiencing anxiety and/or depression, I want to be source of comfort and hope, and, above all, I want you to know that you are not alone.

Beyond simply sharing my story and experience, I want to really delve into some more philosophical issues regarding the way mental illness is conceptualized, studied, treated, and viewed in American society. Being a graduate student with firsthand experience, I have a lot of strong and (I believe) well-reasoned opinions regarding stigma, the language we use to talk about mental illness, and the methods we use to try and increase our knowledge of mental illness.

As someone with academic experience in the field of psychology, I also really want to expose people to the most recent research on depression and anxiety. I remember scouring the internet for information on depression during my first episode, desperate to find out what exactly was wrong with me. I came up very, very short, with the information I found providing little understanding of my condition beyond the symptoms associated with it. One of the things that most disappointed me about grad school was finding out that there is much more knowledge on depression than is widely available and accessible to the general public. With that in mind, another goal of mine will be to summarize some of the more interesting research on both anxiety and depression so that other people with that same desire can better understand their own conditions, as well as how to better help themselves.

A final goal of this blog is to chronicle my journey toward learning effective emotional self-care. I truly believe that recovery from mental illness is possible, and that a large part of that process lies in learning how to nourish ourselves and maintain our emotional health. In that sense, I want to record my own growth in hopes to both encourage myself and give others ideas for how they can pursue their own self-care.

I would love to connect with other bloggers who write about depression, anxiety, mental illness, self-care, wellness, or health. On a less relevant note, I’d also love to connect with anyone that writes about art or creative writing as well, since those are two very fervent passions of mine :). In any case, if you’re somebody who’s interested in any of the above (even if you don’t blog), drop me a line (or a comment). I’d love to chat!