On the heels of a particularly deadly span of mass shootings/violence in the United States, Americans and the rest of the world are searching for answers. Some think it’s a gun control issue, some believe it’s a mental health issue, some believe it’s a generational and parenting issue. While we are greatly divided as a nation on what seems to be the problem, it is safe to say that there is a problem, and we need to figure out the solution before more lives are lost.
As a center that treats women who suffer the effects of trauma, we are well aware of the symptoms that arise as one tries to cope with their trauma. Substance use, addiction, self-harm, aggression, and myriad other mental health issues often arise in the aftermath of trauma, whether situational or developmental in nature. Knowing this, we naturally wonder if mass violence could also be a symptom of trauma.
This article explores the possibility that trauma is correlated with the perpetration of mass violence. This piece is not a scientific-based study, but rather a thought piece designed to explore mass violence as a symptom of trauma. We do not claim to have the answers. In fact, we, ourselves, are trying to make sense of these tragedies much like the rest of the nation, and we wonder what the questions look like when viewed through the lens of trauma.
A Few Notes Before We Get Started
Before we dive more deeply into this topic, it is important to note that we must be careful when talking about trauma.
Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP and president of an outpatient treatment center in San Diego, CA cautions us to be careful when exploring the relationship between trauma and perpetration of violence:
“We need to be careful in thinking about this relationship, because not all traumatized individuals will become violent, and not all violent individuals have a trauma history.”
Our own Karolyn Johnson, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in intimate partner violence and trauma, agrees.
“It is important to remember when we are talking about trauma, that what one person experiences as a traumatic event someone else might not, and how one person responds following a traumatic event is likely different from the next.”
An important note regarding the perpetrators we mention in this article: When we explore the histories of perpetrators of mass violence, we do see instances of traumatic events in the perpetrators’ lives.
Of course, we do not claim to know whether the events which could be construed as traumatic experiences were in fact experienced as traumatic by the perpetrators. Furthermore, we cannot claim to know whether these events were ultimately triggers that led to the events of mass violence. We did not explore all perpetrators of mass violence and understand that the perpetrators we did look at may not be representative of the whole. We are merely highlighting the observation that many, if not most, of the perpetrators we did research had histories of trauma. This evidence is intended to inspire further questioning about the relationship, rather than to draw absolute conclusions.
Could trauma be a symptom of mass violence?
The short answer is yes, it is possible. Experts have varying opinions on this, but the experts interviewed agreed that it is definitely possible.
Haven Hills’ Executive Director and co-founder of Connected, Seen, & Heard, Reya Kost, Psy.D., says yes, it is probable that there is a solid relationship between the two. “I would say [it’s] not only possible but probable and in my opinion, research will show us in the near future that trauma and repeated exposure to violence is the root cause of mass violence. We have a large body of research that connects trauma and childhood abuse to later expressions of aggression and criminality. In Offending Behaviour: the Role of Trauma and PTSD, Ardino stated “Child abuse and neglect, poverty, sexual molestation, and witnessing violence are, among others, the most common risk factors for post-traumatic reactions, aggression, and antisocial behaviour (Dong et al., 2004; Finkelhor, 2008; Hussey, Chang, & Kotch, 2006; Dziuba-Leatherman & Finkelhor, 1994).”
Dr. Horvath states, “We have seen specific individuals with significant trauma history who become catastrophically violent. I believe trauma is a factor in these cases.” After reminding us that we need to be careful when thinking about the relationship (mentioned earlier) he goes on to say, “there seems to be a significant relationship between trauma and later violence.”
Drs. Kost and Horvath aren’t the only ones who believe there is a relationship between the two.
When we asked certified relationship coach and domestic violence expert, Jessica Yaffa, if mass violence could be a symptom of underlying trauma, she responded, “Yes, in fact there is a significant correlation between those who are perpetrators of mass shootings and previous incidents of both domestic violence and childhood trauma.”
Eating disorder specialist and trauma expert, Amy Ryk, also agrees. “Mass violence may absolutely be a symptom of underlying trauma, as the experience of trauma during developmental years can produce negative changes in a person’s view of the world as well as their emotions, thoughts, and their body’s stress response to life events. Trauma can also negatively affect a person’s attachment system and the way in which they relate to people.”
If we take a look into the histories of some of the recent mass shooters who have made headlines in the news, we can see some evidence (some of it anecdotal) that supports the experts’ opinions.
Take, for example, Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old shooter who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Cruz had endured several events which could leave a person traumatized. He was adopted, which has long been understood as a qualifying traumatic event. In addition, at age 5, he witnessed his adoptive father die from a heart attack, and his adoptive mother passed away shortly before he committed his attack on the high school. Reports later surfaced that Cruz had also been the subject of bullying by his brother and classmates.
Another example of interest is Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock. Paddock grew up in a single-mother household and his father who was mostly absent, had a propensity toward criminal behavior, including bank robberies, stealing cars, and running from the law. Whether this equated to childhood trauma for Paddock, we can’t say. But we can say that these events would qualify as adverse childhood experiences. Paddock also had two failed marriages, and divorce, as we know, is a qualifying traumatic event.
Cruz and Paddock aren’t the only examples. Adam Lanza, known for the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown Connecticut, was a child of divorced parents, a target of bullying, and had a fallout with a friend just months before the shooting. Again, we know that divorce can be traumatic for children, bullying is a qualifying trauma, and losing social support can be a form of trauma.
The Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were also targets of bullying. In a TED talk, Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan, mentioned a couple of triggering events which were described as acts of bullying. In this video, you can actually see a group of kids bullying Eric and Dylan by purposely running into the boys. The same video also shows clips of classmates recounting stories of the boys being bullied.
James Holmes, convicted gunman who killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, had reportedly declined after a traumatic move to San Diego at 12 years old. He apparently had a hard time making friends and began to withdraw. While we may not think of a single move as a traumatic event, an article published on Psychology Today posits that moves can be very difficult on kids, especially during other times of transition, such as during puberty. It further mentions that middle school is the toughest time for a child to be uprooted. A move to a new home, in a city where it is difficult to make friends, could quite well be experienced as a traumatic event for a 12-year-old.
Additionally, Holmes said a breakup with his girlfriend months before the shooting had upset him, which led to development of strange thoughts. Worried that he might commit suicide, he figured he could mitigate that by taking the lives of other people. While there are certainly a host of other factors at play here, the case of Holmes highlights the possibility that trauma can act as a trigger for mass violence.
For the sake of brevity, we will stop at the above examples. But the truth is, the list goes on. A simple Google search of the biographies of perpetrators of mass violence highlight many instances of trauma in their lives. We encourage you to investigate this further to see for yourself.
Again, we revisit the caution advised by the experts to be careful in ruling a causal relationship. What is traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another and people do not respond to trauma in the same way. Karolyn Johnson sums it up quite nicely:
“People react to traumatic events in a variety of ways. Some individuals may turn to violence in reaction to underlying trauma, while others may seek out peer support groups, treatment, therapy, or psychiatry. Based on my experience in the field, how someone responds after trauma is based on several factors such as childhood upbringing, when the traumatic event(s) happened, if it was a single event or events that happened repeatedly over time, an individual’s resiliency, resources, core beliefs about self, and the presence of a support system, to name a few.”
So, while mass violence could be a symptom of underlying trauma, it is not necessarily a cause. Still, they do not appear to be completely unrelated and the rates of co-occurrence justify further questioning regarding the relationship.
How does trauma affect a person so profoundly that they feel violence is the only solution?
If, for the sake of argument, mass violence is a symptom of underlying trauma, why then, does trauma affect a person so profoundly that they feel violence is the only solution?
We again turned to the experts to answer this question. The answers are varied and interesting, pointing to a restructuring of the brain, violence as an attempt to regain control in a world viewed as unsafe, pay-back, expression of rage, and simple mirroring of the behaviors of their role models.
Amy Ryk mentions that trauma could lead to aggression because of trauma’s impact on the brain. “Trauma can negatively impact the brain, creating changes in the ways in which a person thinks, feels, and behaves. If [due to the trauma] a person has a psychotic break, for example, their ability to feel empathy for others may be affected. They may also develop paranoia or an overactive flight or fight response in their nervous system. A person who has experienced severe abuse as a child, may also grow up desensitized to violence or habituated to it as a way to solve problems.”
Karolyn Johnson mentions the possibility that violence is a way to gain control in a world that feels unsafe. “I am not sure that a trauma survivor feels violence is the only answer, however recent events have shown that some individuals who have suffered from trauma have acted out violently.
Untreated trauma often results in deep feelings of sadness and distrust, feeling different from, unlovable, isolated, and afraid. It is not uncommon for people to relive their trauma day in and day out due to everyday triggers that are difficult, if not impossible to avoid. My belief is that some may resort to violence as a way to create a sense of control in, or power over, a world that feels so dangerous, experiencing a momentary escape from their pain and suffering.”
Dr. Horvath describes violence as a solution in terms of reducing isolation, pay-back, and expression of rage. “We can imagine a trauma history leading to violence in several ways. The traumatized individual who feels hopeless about changing might re-direct his or her focus on having others also experience that level of pain, as a way not to feel so isolated. Or the perpetrator might think that the victims can magically “pay for” the trauma the perpetrator has experienced. Or the perpetrator simply wants to convey the personal rage he or she experiences.”
Dr. Kost sees violence as expression of negative feelings, a lack of coping skills, and a lack of safe connection. “As human beings, we learn by experience. If I have grown up in violent and abusive surroundings and as a victim myself, I learn that violence and the perpetration of abuse are appropriate expressions of my anger, hurt, and rage. Chances are that I have been taught little to no coping skills, I likely have limited relational skills or safe connections with other people, I have no safe and loving person to seek support from, and I replicate the behavior I see regularly.”
Jessica Yaffa would agree. “In the case of perpetrators who have, themselves, been abused, violence is a mirror of the behaviors they see. “Because perpetrators of violence often grow up having experienced abuse themselves, whether as a witness or direct recipient, as well as often having under treated mental health challenges, many harm-doers resort to violence as being the only form of communication they know.”
If we are to consider trauma as an underlying factor in mass violence, the question then becomes, what can we do to better address trauma in our society?
How can we, as a society, better address trauma?
Unfortunately, the answer to this is not so simple and involves a major restructuring of social systems. As Dr. Horvath points out, “Reducing trauma in society is an enormous task. I believe significant reductions in trauma will require reducing the abuse of power wherever it occurs: family relationships, work relationships, institutional policies. We can certainly do better. How to make these changes is the challenge.”
Education and Compassion
Despite being an enormous challenge, we can each begin by educating ourselves and practicing more compassion toward one another. Karolyn Johnson notes, “While a large responsibility has and continues to fall on law enforcement, medical, and mental health professionals to address trauma, I think if we access our collective power as a society, educate ourselves and practice offering compassion and resources to one another, the likelihood of addressing trauma more effectively increases.”
Jessica Yaffa would agree, adding that eliminating the stigma and shame attributed to survivors would be beneficial. “As a society we have the responsibility of ensuring that collectively we become aware of early signs of mental health disorders while becoming familiar with the resources that exist. We also have an opportunity to eliminate shame and stigma surrounding surviving trauma (including being bullied), as well as identifying ourselves as safe people to disclose the experiences of hurt, pain, anger, and dis-ease.”
Reya Kost: “I have to go with Benjamin Franklin’s quote on this one “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” As a culture and society and as individual human beings, we need to hold ourselves accountable for how the humans we encounter are treated.”
Better Resources and Access to Them
Another key in addressing trauma would be better and more widely available resources, coupled with earlier intervention.
Dr. Kost reminds us that “[o]ur social services are inundated with [people] in need and are drastically understaffed and underfunded.” She further reminds us that it is no “secret that mental health care is rarely accessible to [people] without great insurance or the ability to self-pay for services.”
In addition to better resources and making them more widely accessible, early intervention would be helpful, according to Amy Ryk. “Addressing … trauma as early as possible is the best way to prevent violent behavior down the road.”
It’s important that we, as a nation get a handle on mass violence. Whether we’re looking at issues of bullying, abusive homes, people who need extra support during times of difficulty, and reducing the abuse of power, we can certainly do better.
We know that substance abuse, eating disorders, and mental health issues are often symptoms of trauma. We have seen that by addressing the underlying trauma, we can often better address the symptoms that arise. If we can use the same trauma-informed lens to explore mass violence, we just might find the key to reducing it in the US.
And if we’re wrong? Well, at the very least, we’d have more compassion, better resources, and help would be more widely available for those who need it.