The United States’ Obscene Ignorance of Trauma

What Breeds A Killer in America?

Every day in the United States, as we eat our morning cereal with the Today show, as children leap into pools with a splash to start off a hot summer day, as others roll over and sleep in as long as their alarms will let them, there is another mass shooting. You could be putting gas in your car or dropping your child off somewhere when it happens. You could be in church, grocery shopping, at a concert, at a lake – anywhere. These mass murder events – because shootings sounds too sanitized – happen more and more frequently.

The bipartisan vitriol spewed from both sides of the gun control debate is tired – we have heard the arguments. In just the month following the senseless slaughter in Uvalde, 72 people were killed and 290 were injured in mass murders by gun in the U.S. We have grown hardened to it. It is something that no longer surprises us. We live in a state of shock from it. Some people react to that shock by wanting to stockpile weaponry for their own safety, citing the good guys with guns theory (been debunked by science). Others want sweeping change in gun legislation to limit accessibility and firepower. I am of the latter mindset. I wish projectile weaponry hadn’t been conceived of, but I’d have to find the first cave dweller to throw a rock in an attack and then prevent every other individual ever born from conceiving the idea, a ridiculous notion.

Distancing oneself from the damage caused by one’s weaponry also distances a killer from the consequences of their actions. It is why politicians should not make war unless they are willing to fight in it. Despite our epidemic of violence towards others, the largest percentage of gun deaths are suicides. Those with suicidal ideation (SI) are among those at greater risk due to ready access to firearms. American veterans are some of the most vulnerable – 22 veterans kill themselves every day in the U.S. Veterans often suffering from addiction and PTSD. The fiery and ultimately useless political debates in which our politicians engage do not focus on the raging mental health crisis in our nation, including addiction and PTSD – addiction is a symptom that becomes its own disease and trauma can lead to a host of illnesses, mental and physical.  Despite trauma’s significant effect on our development, it is hardly mentioned in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM V), the leading publication on such matters – for this and other reasons, the DSM V has been heavily criticized by thousands of members of the APA. There is a wealth of information available about the detrimental effects of trauma.  Leading experts understand our lives are rife with it – trauma is a generational epidemic.

What could make a person slaughter a room filled with children? It wasn’t the gun the shooter used gun advocates will argue. In one sense, they are right. A healthy and happy person can have an arsenal within reach and will not choose to use it to kill; those who would, should be kept from it.  Uvalde is why a radical and comprehensive overhaul of both gun laws and mental health care is vital. If Ramos lived, he would have faced the death penalty. Those charged with capital murder and facing the possibility of the death penalty are entitled to a life history investigation. A defendant’s genealogy is traced back several generations. The defense conducts an in-depth investigation into the client’s medical and mental health history, education records, and criminal history, and engages in personal interviews with friends, family, witnesses, and others. These investigations rarely fail to show signs of the coming of the storm. For example, in a client’s education records, their grades drop from one semester to the next. They go from one or two absences to several from one semester to another. There is a shift in their self.  What if someone who knew what to look for was watching? The perpetrators of these heinous crimes are denounced as evil. The evidence for evil is slim and questionable. Everyone was once an infant in someone’s arms. Other than Rosemary’s, I’ve never seen record of an evil baby. The record of trauma causing damage to individuals, though, that record is long and storied. What effect does trauma have? Say, for example, a helpless infant cries and no one picks that child up. It’s possible that child will eventually stop crying when they’re upset. It’s possible that child might not learn to respond appropriately to another person’s pain. If a child is beaten for misbehaving, it will have a negative effect on their mental health. The evidence to support these statements is widely available and has been for years. It is not one single event that causes a person to become a killer. It is a series of events and number of variables including genetics, development, and trauma that build and build until they unleash a storm beyond the person’s control. If we had robust mental health care, someone who knows what to look for might have documented signs of this child’s downward spiral – Ramos was himself still a child developmentally. Our brains mature beyond the adolescent stage in our mid-to-late-20s. In the days after the Uvalde massacre, people shared stories of what they knew of Ramos – and there were signs of his unraveling. There were signs, but the right people were not watching – and that is a pivotal fact.

Ramos is dead, and he killed 22 others. What was so broken in him that he would have such rage? Gun legislation is important – but mental health care is even more so, if we want a world where this doesn’t happen. Healthy happy people do not slaughter others. We need to implement widespread, systemic mental health care nationwide. We need to stop tracing these stories backwards after these tragedies occur. We need to pay attention from the beginning so we can step in before the worst has happened. If Ramos survived his attack, he would have had a team of people fighting to save his life. He should have had a team of people fighting for him from the beginning, and maybe this horror would never have happened. The children and teachers of Uvalde would still be alive today. We react with rage at senseless slaughter and seek vengeance.

Robert E. Crimo III is charged with multiple murders for a shooting in Highland Park, killing seven and injuring 30. Immediately, those who did the slightest bit of digging saw there were obvious and public signs of Crimo exhibiting violent tendencies. In an interview with NBC, a former classmate wondered how she could go to school with someone for several years without knowing he was the type of person who could commit such an atrocity. Like any health problem, the onset of mental illness can occur at any age. Statistical data shows that the first psychotic break occurs often in the late teens and early 20s. Approximately 100,000 people a year in the U.S. experience their first psychotic break. – National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Health fact page for first episode psychosis

Trauma in capital defendants is often complex. Their cases involve mental and physical health problems, and histories of trauma including traumatic injury, abuse, and neglect. They are victims of violence. Psychotic disorders are not uncommon. Some mental illness can be traumatic in and of itself – imagine a cacophonous, abusive, and insane audience trapped inside your mind. Trauma – divorce, death, neglect, abuse, violence – leaves deep wounds that affect us even to a cellular level. Epigenetics is the study of changes caused by the modification of gene expression rather than alteration of genetic code – it includes how your experiences affect the genetic code of which you are comprised. Trauma can be inherited. Children of Holocaust survivors have mental and physical health issues because of what their parents lived through, even if their parents recovered from the immediate health effects of their war trauma.

With the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) overturning Roe, there will be even more children – unwanted yet forced into existence – who will be abandoned, neglected, abused, injured, or in extreme cases killed. The same court recently expanded access to firearms. When the slaughter of children by children has become so commonplace that people are numb to it, haven’t we already lost? We are horrified by Crimo, by Ramos – people label them monsters to differentiate them from themselves. It makes it palatable to separate ourselves from them – they are monsters, we are not like them. But we are – we are them. We are their parents, their children, their siblings, and we need to be paying attention.

Yehuda R., Lehrner A. (2018, October). Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World Psychiatry, 17, pg. 243-257. – The Child Trauma Academy – Gun Violence Archive page on mass shootings in the United States

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