When tragedies such as the senseless shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland occur, it is essential to understand the circumstances that contributed so that steps can be taken to prevent similar tragedies in the future. One factor that may have contributed in this case was mental illness. Reports indicate that Nikolas Cruz, the shooter, had received mental-health treatment at a local clinic, but had stopped going for this treatment.
Do people with mental illness pose a greater risk of violence? In general, no. Not only is there a low likelihood of violence by people with mental illness, they are more likely to be victims of violence than to victimize others. A past history of violence, including domestic violence, substance abuse and childhood trauma may increase the risk of violence. Lack of treatment for the symptoms of psychosis, such as delusions and hallucinations, may increase the risk as well.
Tragedies such as the Parkland shootings often can be a sign of something gone terribly wrong with our mental health system. The shootings may have been preventable, but it does not negate the fact that people with mental illnesses are not getting the treatment and support they need.
I was fortunate to get the support I needed. During college I heard whispers that told me I was an angel, and I became obsessed with reading religious texts. The voices never told me to hurt anyone, but I isolated myself and neglected my hygiene. My close friend at college knew something was off and told my mom to speak with me. A few days later I met with my mother and my academic advisor to discuss my mental health challenges.
Today, with the support of friends, family and a professional community, I work as a nurse practitioner in a psychiatric practice. My preferred patients to treat and care for are the young men in their college years who’ve begun showing signs of mental illness: failing grades, neglected hygiene, erratic behavior. I talk to them openly about my struggles. I tell them, “You are not alone. I’ve been through what you are going through, and it gets better with help and treatment.”
Cruz fell through the cracks of a failing mental-health system. It seems that he didn’t get the right treatment, or the support of family and community, to overcome his illness. His mother was one of the few people to whom he was close, then she had passed away. Teachers, students and others who knew Cruz thought something was off, but he had not been in treatment for more than a year. His social media posts of guns, killing animals and threatening others were obvious markers of a decompensating mind and a person in desperate need of help.
We must ask ourselves: Why didn’t Cruz get the care he needed? Did family members or others close to him ever receive education and support? Was a treatment plan developed? Was he adhering to it? If not, why not?
We must be willing to have an honest conversation with ourselves regarding what actions we will take to prevent this from happening again. We must pursue a solution that includes fixing a failing mental-health system so that we can meet the needs of individuals with mental illness.
I extend my deepest sympathy to the families and victims of the Parkland tragedy and encourage anyone going through a difficult time to seek help. There are free support groups and education courses in many communities across the United States.
We are here for you.
Carlos A. Larrauri is on the board of directors for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and NAMI Miami-Dade County.