COLUMN: Mental instability not always easy to identify, properly diagnose

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By John Lapp

The question of mental instability has been on the minds of many, if not most of us, as it relates to the horrific murder of 26 people, not the least of which were 20 very young children, all at the hands of one man. This topic has dominated the media and many questions have been presented as to the mental condition of the shooter. Some have asked if he was actually a disturbed person because he was certainly not normal, especially displaying that type of behavior. There have been speculations that he must have had a troubled childhood, or maybe he was a previous or current psychiatric patient under the care of a mental health practitioner at the time of the shooting.
Although he appears by many reports to be mentally ill, we really don’t know that he qualifies as being in many ways much different than some people you and I know, maybe even live in our neighborhood, or someone we work with in our employment, or is a member of our local church, maybe even a member of our close or extended family. Who knows who is capable of such a horrible crime? The same type of questions were asked after the other recent mass killings.
Are these people sane or insane? The same unusual thing happened at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tuscon, Ariz., Aurora, Colo., and even back to 1981 with the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan only months after being sworn in. The shooter who confessed to the crimes where three others were also injured, including James Brady, one of the presidents’ Secret Service Agents, was John Hinckley Jr., a 25 year old. He was the youngest of three children of an upper-class executive and his wife, active church members, who had taught strong family and Christian values to all of the children. The two older children have done well, while John never seemed to get settled into any path of education or employment and qualified for the title “loner” with few friends.
Even more recently, there is the case of the man who set fire to his house and a call subsequently was placed to the fire department. When the firemen arrived, he opened fire on them, killing two and injuring two others before taking his own life. Reportedly, he had previously served 17 years in prison related to the death of his grandmother who he had killed with a hammer.
Now, we would all agree that both incidents in this man’s life would not qualify as one considered “normal” by any stretch of the imagination. We would agree that his behavior was so abnormal compared to what most of us would believe to be normal, which brings us to consider the following: who is capable of killing another person?
Have any of us ever harbored strong feelings of revenge, wanting to get even, possibly hoping that someone we know or are at least are acquainted with would “get what he or she deserves?” Now, that doesn’t mean that I would personally do anything to hurt another person who “deserves” it, but it also doesn’t mean that if he or she suffers for what was done, it would actually bother me, in fact I may even feel satisfied, even glad.
Often, when some type of abnormal, unusual thing happens and it is discovered who the person is who had done this thing, we hear things like, “are you actually saying that (name not included) attacked his mother and sister, that’s hard to believe because I knew him as such a gentle boy who used to come to our house and play with our son and they never had a fight, not even any bad words were exchanged. He was always polite, considerate and very nice to be around.”
That is the shock of behavior similar to that which has recently caught all of our attention, although as previously stated, Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, has been described as being mentally ill long before the described incident took place.
Are there people like these reported killers living in closed proximity to any of us? We don’t know the answer to that question, and probably never will, but it goes without saying that there are many people who suffer with some type of emotional or mental issues, and while some of them are currently institutionalized in a mental health facility or getting treatment in an outpatient clinic, many are adequately medicated and act and are very normal.
People who have serious problems dealing with factors of life look and act very normal and are not easy to know who they really are, except for perhaps close family members, and do not always fit into a certain pattern of known behavior.
This topic is presented here not because I am an expert in the area of abnormal behavior patterns, but just as a reminder that all of us who consider ourselves to be quite normal, are, nevertheless, capable of acting in some ways that are not always on the healthy side of the ledger, like “blowing up” in rages of anger and frustration over small things that shouldn’t draw such reactions. We aren’t “nuts,” just impulsively/occasionally act that way.
I will be speaking this month at a men’s gathering at a local church, this topic requested by the one asking me to speak. It is indeed a hot topic more recently. May God bless you as you bless others.
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