Was Adam Lanza Mentally Ill?

Melissa at Shakesville* verbalized something that has been bothering me about the way the Newtown shooting is being discussed:

What other discussion there has been on the topic of Doing Something has largely centered around “mental illness,” a vague term that public commentators are broadly applying to everything from depression to developmental disabilities to personality disorders to the neuroatypical spectrum. The inexactitude of the language is complemented by the pretense that access to comprehensive mental healthcare will somehow “solve” this problem, eliding key realities of some psychological disabilities.

I’m also getting fed up with seeing endless posts and articles that diagnoze Lanza in absentia with some unidentified “mental disease.” Unless you are not only a psychiatrist but Lanza’s psychiatrist who treated him in person, it is not your place to decide that he was ill. I know it’s easy to allay the anxiety produced by something as horrible as this mass shooting by convincing yourself that the criminal must have been “crazy” but this is an attitude of an ostrich that hides its head in the sand.

Only too often complex realities get dismissed and concealed from view by attaching some meaningless diagnosis to them, a diagnosis that explains absolutely nothing. More and more non-existent “disorders” crop up and the particularly brainless folks embrace them with glee.

What we know for sure about Adam Lanza is that he is a mass murderer. Tragically, murderers exist. They make a decision to kill people for whatever reason. But not every bad choice has to be a product of an illness.

* Other than this quote, the linked post is really bad. Don’t read it if you are impressionable and get traumatized by the “men are the root of all evil” mentality.

22 thoughts on “Was Adam Lanza Mentally Ill?

  1. Thanks for this. It’s sad to see people using mental illness as a convenient scapegoat rather than discussing all the other factors this could’ve been caused by, and it pains me that people with mental illnesses, especially ones like schizophrenia, will be stigmatized even more by such discussions, even though they’re much more likely to be the victims of violence than to commit it.


    1. It is disturbing that the expression “mentally ill” is being used in lieu of “a criminal” or “a bad person.” As if what happened weren’t tragic enough, we are now compounding the tragedy by othering and scapegoating the mentally ill.


  2. A psychologist that NPR had on pointed out that in these mass shootings we can often retroactively find a pattern (years struggling with depression/anxiety, coupled with a traumatic life event) but it is not the sort of pattern you can use to predict a mass killer, obviously, since so many more people suffer from similar mental stress and don’t become violent as a result. And often the mental illness that is associated with these mass killers is not the less common schizophrenia, etc, but just depression/anxiety which is incredibly common.


  3. I do not define lunacy necessarily as a treatable mental illness. Lunacy may be untreatable, in which case permament incarceration is the appropriate ‘treatment’. Normal individuals do not walk into elementary schools to execute little children.Most criminals are rational beings, suscepible to rational constraints, such as the threat of incarceration or the needle. Lunatics are not so susceptible. By definition, they are irrational.

    Those who live with such aberrants have a good idea that they are irrational. The best that can be done is to have them evaluated, and if necessary, locked up, before they go on the rampage. In that regard, his mother was grossly remiss.


  4. You’re right in a previous post. Newtown is no Walden Pond. They like their guns in this village that the media have painted as a bucolic innocent rural paradise invaded by a crazy gun totting Apsie. (I’ve read in many places and seen on CNN a specific reference to aspergers who lack emphathy which turns them into killers but I know that this is a false.) As this article in the NYT discusses:

    There are a lot of Republican country club types in the area who run the local councils. One of the folks quoted in the article said:

    “Guns are why we’re free in this country, and people lose sight of that when tragedies like this happen,” he said. “A gun didn’t kill all those children; a disturbed man killed all those children.”


  5. To answer your question, unequivocally yes. Illness takes on many forms, the common cold to cancer, mental illness is no different. Sometimes it doesnt take a health professional to tell us what we all know. What type of mental illness this young man had is not our call but clearly he was not right of mind. 😦


    1. I agree that there was clearly something wrong with him. I understand that people who have milder forms of mental distress do not want to be tarred with the same brush as a madman mass killer, but I also think we can choose to separate the connotations from denotation of the term, “mentally ill”, and not attribute dangerousness to those who are simply distressed.


      1. “I agree that there was clearly something wrong with him.”

        – Do you believe that all criminals are mentally ill? Is being a criminal some sort of a disease? Or is it possible that completely healthy people choose to commit crimes because that’s what they want to do?

        This whole discussion is starting to remind me of this old joke: At a psychoanalytic conference, one analyst approaches another one and without saying a word starts pummeling the guy with his fists. Then he walks away. The analyst gets off the floor, wipes the blood off his face, and says, “Poor guy! I had no idea he had such serious issues.”

        Is everybody who commits horrible acts necessarily sick? Were the Nazis all sick? The Stalinists? The Khmer Rouge?

        I’m not from an Anglophone culture, so this idea that crime is necessarily something out of the criminal’s control is very alien to me.


        1. Oh! I don’t use the bifurcation of “in the criminal’s control” or “outside of it”. I understand that the legal system does use that paradigm, but it was not implicit in my view.

          My understanding is based on mirror cell theory. If one does harm to another, one is also doing harm to oneself in the same way, on the same emotional level, or else one is already a psychopathic with neurological mis-wiring and doesn’t feel it.

          But as for the question of whether the crime is under the criminal’s control — that is a totally different issue and one I have not addressed.


            1. It’s not my next step, although the law does tend to see it that way. My way of seeing justice is that it’s not a matter of subjectivity. Western culture has it back to front. Killing people is not a subjective issue. That’s an objective fact. If ti breaks the law, then you ought to be punished for that.

              Western culture makes justice into a subjective issue and personal experiences into an objective one. People are often ready to let a criminal off the hook if he has suffered, but they want to police your private emotions, to determine whether you have the right to feel a certain way. “How dare you feel this way or that way?!” they proclaim. But a big crime deserves our interest and our sympathy.

              One day, maybe people will realize that they’ve turned everything back to front.


      2. I still have no idea what goal people achieve by repeating that “he must be sick, he must be sick.” Nobody here is his attending physician, so nobody here can possibly know. There must be a reason why people are so invested in repeating this.


  6. I actually know a lot of criminals because of the prison work and normally, they are not more mentally ill than the rest of us, even if more eccentric. The difference between them and me is that they have been in circumstances where killing someone was one of the rational options, and they did it, or they were willing to go that far whereas I am not.

    It appears that we do not want to countenance the idea that it is possible to kill someone while rational.


  7. “But as for the question of whether the crime is under the criminal’s control — that is a totally different issue and one I have not addressed.”

    Most criminals I know would say it was under their control, although most were also in situations were all options were bad. The ones who say it was not a crime, or that it was not in their control, are actually the ones who need to be locked up because they are dangerous and will continue to be. The others just need better regulation and/or better opportunities.


  8. // That’s the next step in the “he is ill” argument, though. It is cruel to put sick people in jail, so such criminals should be medicated and let roam free instead.

    Whatever arguments some people may put as a result, it doesn’t change his mental status. Doesn’t change the truth.

    “If he is mentally ill and we say it, then not violent ill people will get hurt in public perception and some people will start using arguments I disagree with” is not a convincing argument.

    Most criminals are not mentally ill, but most criminals don’t shoot schools full of children either. Except terrorists, who are mentally healthy, btw. This man, most likely, was unhealthy.

    Some years ago in Israel a serial rapist escaped from jail, many recources were used to catch him. The man is clearly mentally unhealthy (I don’t say all serial rapists are, but he is), so what? He is still in jail, where he belongs.

    Violent serial killer psychopaths are unhealthy too (not all are psych. I talk of those who are), and? We don’t have ability to fix many disorders yet. We can’t medicate those people into becoming not dangerous and society must protect itself from them: or kill, or put in jail for life.


  9. of course mental Illness had absolutely nothing to do with the shootings- it was all because they didn’t pray in school that morning and that citizens are legally permitted to have guns (typed using my sarcastic font …)


    1. Of course that’s why! Duh!! It’s not like anyone has ever killed in God’s name or anything…*borrowing your sarcastic font*


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