Congratulations, America! It looks like we’re past the #COVID19 pandemic and have returned to normal. Not only have we had two spectacular mass shootings — the Atlanta Spa Shooting and the Boulder King Sooper Shooting — but, we’ve had seven mass shootings in seven days. Now, that sounds like the pre-pandemic America that I know and love. Please shoot me up with some bleach and shine a flashlight up my ass if this is what we’ve endured the last year of death, disease, uncertainty, social isolation, and masks to return to.
It is notable, though, that we are not hearing widespread calls to hearts and prayers and that it is too soon to politicize these events. So, progress?
The Democrats have passed two gun safety bills in the House. Both address holes in the background check requirements for gun purchases. One requires private gun sales to have background checks before being concluded. The other extends the time limit for conducting those checks so that no one gets a gun without the check like the shooter of Charleston Mother Emanuel CME Church. Maybe it will get through the Democratic controlled Senate this time? How ’bout it Joe Manchin? Maybe. More on that in another blog post.
The Shooter’s Mental Health Issues
As information about the King Sooper Boulder shooter trickles out, this statement by the shooters brother really struck me: “He always suspected someone was behind him, someone was chasing him,” his brother is quoted in a CNN article. He added, “We kept a close eye on him when he was in high school. He would say, ‘Someone is chasing me, someone is investigating me.’ And we’re like, ‘Come on man. There’s nothing,’ ” he concludes.
For me, this statement jumped out as a huge red flag suggesting that there may be some kind of paranoid delusion occurring in the mind of the shooter and wondering why the family and friends who were aware of these thoughts didn’t treat them like the symptoms of a mental health disorder that they are. First, let’s start with the idea of paranoid delusions and then move on to how we deal with mental health issues.
Delusions are a symptom of a mental health disorder in which people cannot distinguish between reality and what is imagined. The deluded person has an unshakable belief in the reality of what they’ve imagined to be true. They treat their manifestly false beliefs as if they are part of daily reality. A good example is believing that an election was rigged through some type of program or app used by a voting machine company when it wasn’t. While it is conceivable that such a thing could happen and even might happen in the future or did happen but with another company, there is no evidence to support the belief with regard to the company the deluded person has targeted. Isn’t that right Powell, Giuliani, and Lindell. As far as I can tell, many people are spouting these falsehoods, but at one time in their fevered babblings on the pundit shows, these folks actually believed it… well, at least, until the lawsuits were filed and then it became better to claim that no reasonable person would believe such a patently false statement so no one should be held responsible for not only promoting those claims but using them as a basis for court cases.
Unfortunately for the ten dead and dozens of shoppers and hundreds of family members and friends of those affected by the Boulder King Sooper shooting, the delusions of the shooter are not so easily dismissed or ineffective.
Paranoia is the development of “a persistent, well-systematized, and logically constructed set of persecutory delusions, such as being conspired against, poisoned, or maligned.” Hunh? A person who is paranoid to use the vernacular sense of the word, experiences high levels of anxiety or fear about being persecuted, threatened, or conspired against. You know, the person who takes the old joke, We all got together last night to discuss why you’re so paranoid, seriously.
Simple paranoia shifts into paranoid delusion when the person cannot be dissuaded from their irrational beliefs by evidence to the contrary or any other appeal. They no longer can manage their irrationality. It shifts to a true mental health disorder when it begins to interfere with their ability to function on a daily basis, either to take care of themselves or interact with others.
Persecutory delusions are another way of describing the same condition. The person feels like another person, group of people, or organization is planning on or actually harming them.
While most people with mental health disorders are not a danger to others including those with paranoid delusions, it is easy to see that this could easily cause someone to defend themselves from being persecuted. If you believe that the mail person is causing you to have suicidal or homicidal thoughts, then the next time the post is delivered, you just might could “defend” yourself against them. For example, a case study of a delusional older adult shows the extent to which someone with delusions may act on them. This woman believed that the neighbors were breaking into her house and making pornagraphy with her dog. She would set traps for them like smearing the front stoop with butter so they’d slip and fall kinda like Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, or Wile E Coyote might do in a similar situation. She never harmed anyone though, as you might well imagine.
More Signs of Delusions
You can see how when the shooter started to voice fears that he was being followed, chased, and investigated, it sounded pretty much like paranoid delusion. Unfortunately, there were other paranoid delusions as well. He claimed on a FB page that his old high school had hacked his phone. On 18 March 2019, almost one year ago, he wrote, “Just curious what are the laws about phone privacy because I believe my old school (a west) was hacking my phone.” Unfortunately, people only asked him why he thought that might be happening not recognizing it for the paranoid delusion and symptom of a much larger problem than it was.
In other posts, he was begging to be left to lead a normal life and professed a belief that the school was hacking his phone because of racism and false rumors spread about him. Still more evidence of mental distress.
If his family and friends had had any kind of understanding of mental illness, they would’ve been reaching for him and trying to help him cope with his delusions. They would’ve been urging him to see a professional and seek treatment.
Signs of Imminent Danger
Worse, there was one glaring sign of imminent danger: he was seen “playing” with a gun two days before the attack. He told his sister-in-law that there was a bullet stuck in it and he was trying to get it out. This was from a man who had expressed paranoid delusions and never had carried a gun before in his life. How guilty must she and his brother be feeling now that they didn’t react to such a clear warning sign?
Helping Someone with Paranoid Delusions
The question is, how do you help someone who is delusional? The shooter’s family and friends knew something was wrong, which is probably also true of the Atlanta spa shooter, too. They were probably as worried as they were uncertain of how to help. Here are some recommendations:
- Don’t dispute the delusions. As tempted as you are to argue with the person because they are so clearly wrong, don’t because delusions tend to be malleable, and the person will simply use your objections in their delusions.
- Don’t reinforce the delusions. Many are tempted to go along with the delusion, especially if objecting hasn’t worked. Don’t do this either. Playing along with them will validate those beliefs and strengthen their resolve.
- Follow the emotion. While the thoughts are erroneous, the emotions driving them are not. The person is afraid, anxious, and worried. You should acknowledge these emotions — and whatever other ones they present — and redirect them to other explanations. Try something along the lines of, That would be scary, but I see it a little differently, and follow up with an alternative explanation for why the helicopter is flying so low overhead or the van is parked across the street or whatever it is the person is fixated on.
- Get help. Help the person get professional help. There is only so much family members and friends can do. The delusional person will need talk therapy and medication to help them through. The delusions will probably never go away completely, but their disruptive effects will be manageable.
Getting Help for Mental Health Issues
In general, if you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health problem, you should seek help. Here are a few resources in the US to get you started. For resources outside of the US see the excellent blog post, Happy World Mental Health Day, where there are listings for the UK, India, and Canada. If you have contact information for other countries, please list them in the comments.
There are lots of publicly available resources. Here are some for various situations
- If you are in a situation where there is a threat to yourself or others, call 911.
- If you are suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255); en Español 1-888-628-9454; and hearing impaired TTY 1-800-799-4887. They can also hook you up with the nearest crisis center that can provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals.
- The Crisis Text Line provides help by TEXT, text “HELLO” to 741741 for help finding a crisis counselor.
- Veterans Crisis Line provides help to our veterans by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and pressing 1 or text to 83825.
- Disaster Distress Helpline is available by calling 1-800-985-5990 or texting “TalkWithUs” to 66746. They provide immediate crisis counseling. It is free, multilingual, confidential, and available 24-7.
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Categories: Abnormal Psychology