High profile shootings have surrounded my hometown. I grew up in Colorado ten minutes from Columbine, fifteen minutes from the Aurora theatre shooting, and then two years ago my little brother was at Arapahoe high school when Karl Pierson attempted another Columbine.
The first article I ever published on this blog dealt with the Arapahoe shooting. In that article I discussed these shootings as a metaphor for a more common problem our society suffers from at large: certitude. But now I believe these shootings may be more than a metaphor but an actual exhibition of this unhealthy mentality prevalent in our society. This certitude is a mental illness but not the kind of issue that can be dismissed by the words “crazy” or “insane.” Rather, it is very familiar and most of us suffer from the same or similar ailments.
We live at a time where the accepted state of discourse is a lambasting overconfident polemic that magnifies favorable evidence and ignores contrary evidence. We have become so impassioned and sentimentally driven that we corroborate our opinions with like-minded people. These like-minded people are often bloggers (like myself) who are concerned about getting views, shares, and likes. To do so we often use soundbites, spectacle, and (knowingly or not) end up not being fully honest about the complexities of a situation. In the end we often come across more confident than we should and perhaps more confident than we really are.
A very similar sort of certitude and overconfidence is at the root of most mental health issues. What I mean by certitude and overconfidence in this case is not necessarily a personality type, but the conviction of someone who has developed a way of thinking and gotten stuck in a rut so that they are unable to change, modify, question, challenge, or nuance their thought patterns. This sort of certitude is addictive and can cause people to believe they are fat even when they are hospitalized for extremely low weight from anorexia.
This type of certitude can also lead to depression, a very prevalent mental illness where people become stuck in thought patterns, many of which become automatic or subconscious. So while depressed individuals may seem uncomfortable and sad, they are still suffering from the kind of inflexible certitude or automatic thought patterns I am talking about. This over-certainty causes the vast majority of mental illnesses and ought to become a primary concern in teaching mental health.
And yes, mental health needs to be taught to everyone because it’s not just an issue for “crazies” and “nutcases.” A high percentage of families will experience a severe issue of mental illness at some point. Focusing on severe mental illness, however, minimizes the true scope of the issue. As with the body, there are big dramatic illnesses like cancer, hepatitis, and tuberculosis which many or most people won’t ever deal with, and then there are more common and wide spread colds, flues, and viruses that everyone will encounter. In reality, everyone struggles with mental health just like everyone struggles with bodily health.
Our schools have classes that teach about nutrition and sex but very little attention is given to developing a vibrant and resilient mental health. The need for preventative care is particularly important with mental health because, when there are life threatening mental problems as we’ve recently witnessed, doctors cannot insert a stent or cut out a tumor to fix it. At least not yet. The best we have are hit and miss medications (which may involve serious risks) and clinicians who, long after thought patterns have become entrenched, try to help us undo the damage with marginal success. For mental health more than any other health type, we must be our own doctors.
The truth is that for every school shooter there are thousands of people who were in a very similar situation but did not end up performing their sorrows in the most terrible way. So what’s the difference? What allows a person to return to mental health? What skills would a potential shooter need to change his fate?
In my view, the single largest skill for each of us to learn is to be our own thought critic. Which in a way is to be less confident, less certain. It’s fine to have opinions, but we all need to become aware of other interpretations and possibilities and contingencies. We need to become comfortable questioning our thoughts and suggesting new thoughts. We need to be purposeful in our thinking and honest about what we don’t know. In short, we need to be less confident and more humble.
Likewise we need to question our feelings. Thoughts lead to feelings. Negative harmful thought lead to negative harmful feelings. Depressed thought patterns lead to depressed feelings. Thoughts are hard to battle because they are often unconscious and emotional. It’s hard to question negative thoughts when you feel negatively. It’s likewise hard to question an opinion when it feels so right for the same reason. Thoughts and feelings are not separate phenomena. To keep both healthy we need to be humble and question our thoughts and emotions particularly when they become rigid. We need to realize that just thinking or feeling something does not make it true or accurate.
We must learn to question our thoughts, and the good news is we can. The field of neuroscience has exploded with studies and books, with titles like, “Train Your Brain, Change Your Life,” “The Brain That Changes Itself,” “Breaking The Habit of Being Yourself” and my personal favorite “What Makes Your Brain Happy, and Why You Should Do The Opposite.” These books all confirm the reality of neuroplasticity, which means that people are able to consciously challenge, change, and improve their thought patterns.
Even subconscious thought patterns and feelings can be changed by paying attention to negative feelings, and bringing the underlying thoughts and assumptions to consciousness, challenging them and establishing new and more accurate thought patterns.
What we’ve learned is shooters often come from good families, happy homes, and positive social groups. In short, they are anyone and are not so hard to understand. They seem to be a natural outgrowth of an over-certain society that hasn’t learned to question itself. And while the majority of us will never go to the extremes that these individuals have and will, we all must develop and promote these skills and attributes.
We need to be less comfortable being certain and more comfortable being humble and uncertain. This does not mean we give up ever believing or knowing anything, rather it means we remain purposeful, flexible, and aware of our thoughts and assumptions. It’s the best preventative medicine out there and we need it in our politics, our social interactions, and in our campuses and classrooms.