Opinion: Finding hope, a way forward amidst the epidemic of violence

A New Hampshire State Trooper holds a candle during the vigil ceremony on Monday evening for former Franklin Police chief Bradley Haas who was killed at the New Hampshire State Hospital.

A New Hampshire State Trooper holds a candle during the vigil ceremony on Monday evening for former Franklin Police chief Bradley Haas who was killed at the New Hampshire State Hospital. Monitor file


Published: 01-27-2024 7:00 AM

Cynthia Whitaker, PsyD, is President & CEO at Greater Nashua Mental Health. She lives in Weare.

When I first sat down to write this commentary in the wake of the Lewiston shootings in October, I never imagined that soon after there would be a shooting even closer to home and within our New Hampshire mental health system. The tragic loss of Officer Bradley Haas at NH Hospital grieves all of us in the mental health community and was a harsh reminder that there is no place in our country that can escape the reality of the epidemic of violence.

After similar incidents across the country, there were reactionary discussions about what we should as a nation do. Many people rush to judgment about mental illness or access to firearms and blame our legislators for not doing more; sadly, our community has been no different. I encourage us to choose a different path forward following the lead of Drs. Jillian Peterson and James Densley, who run The Violence Project. The Violence Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that is home to the first comprehensive database on mass shootings. Their work urges us all to consider the data, develop conclusions, and take actions based on facts rather than opinions.

One of the facts that mental health experts and advocates have known for some time is that there is no causal relationship between mental illness and violence. In fact, overall, people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. Based on their research, Peterson and Densley conclude that “the mental health of mass shooters is complicated.”

It is complicated because when people think about mental illness, they often think about symptoms related to altered sensory experiences, such as hearing voices or seeing visions. Yet only around 30% of mass shooters experience these types of psychotic symptoms, and those symptoms only played a major role in the violence in about 10% of cases.

In my opinion, it is important to remember that ‘mental health’ refers to so much more than people who live with a diagnosable mental illness. We all have mental health that is impacted by trauma and isolation, and we can all become overwhelmed with emotions and experience suicidal thoughts. As Peterson and Densley note, “If a mass shooter has a mental health diagnosis, this doesn’t mean that their every action is related to that diagnosis or that their symptoms caused them to pull the trigger. All we can say with some degree of certainty is that no one living a fulfilled life perpetrates a mass shooting.”

In today’s world, there are many contributing factors to an unfulfilled life. But there is also hope and multiple pathways to stopping the epidemic of violence when our actions are based on facts. As individuals and communities, there are many actions that we can take.

■We can build relationships with and support enriching programs for young people.

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■We can hold one another accountable to limit the notoriety given to perpetrators.

■We can invest in public health campaigns for suicide prevention and safe social media usage.

■We can universally screen for trauma and provide unwavering compassion and support to all people, because we never know who has lived through a traumatic experience.

■We can promote social justice within our institutions and programs.

■We can review the facts about violence with firearms and reconsider our laws related to background checks, waiting periods, and assault rifles.

■We can train ourselves to speak up and create anonymous reporting systems.

■We can create environments that are welcoming to all so no one feels alone and isolated.

■We can combat stigma about mental illness and ensure that all people have access to support during a mental health crisis in which they feel overwhelmed or suicidal.

Anger, hate, and blame will never be the key to the positive changes we want to see in our world. To end the epidemic of violence, we must choose compassion, support, and empowerment of people to build fulfilling lives. We must work together to take action based on facts and to find hope for our future.