Massacres, Mental Health and Black Kids

Show Me the Numbers: As Newtown coverage conflates mental illness and violence, students may suffer.


(The Root) -- The suspected mental-health issues of the Newtown, Conn., man who killed 26 people before killing himself on Dec. 14 has many scrutinizing the resources available for people who suffer from psychiatric disorders. The shooter, Adam Lanza, was only 20 years old, and all of the victims, except for his mother, Nancy Lanza, were murdered at school.

These two aspects of the crime are motivating many school leaders and policymakers to engage in a long, unsettled conversation about mental health in places of learning. However, while expanding resources for young people with mental illness is important, discussing mental illness within the context of a mass murder will only result in mental-health stigma and misinformed policies.

Did the Sandy Hook Shooter Have a Mental-Health Problem? 

So far, the only evidence we have that Lanza had any sort of special needs was his parents' noting his Asperger's syndrome, an autism-spectrum disorder, to a therapist during their divorce. Therefore, the coverage of the shooter's "mental illness" is grossly disproportional to any evidence presented that he had an enduring psychiatric disorder. The mere fact that we presume an inevitable connection between mental illness and mass murder is deeply problematic. There is simply no evidence that someone with autism is more likely to murder than the general population.

The media's peculiar fixation on mental health as a causal determinant of violence in this particular case has the trappings of race and class biases. In the initial coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting, the media were transparent in trying to make one point clear: If this could happen at this school, this could happen anywhere.

A "neighborhood of spacious houses on a crest overlooking gentle hills" is how CNN described the Sandy Hook community in an article entitled "Shooter's Mother Had Heart of Gold." Would such a description be considered if the subject were a black woman who was single, collected money without having a job and who purchased a cache of weapons, which her son used to kill 20 children? Notably, CNN subsequently changed the title of the article to "Shooter's Mother Wanted Her Son to Fit In."

Many articles also noted that the shooter's father, Peter Lanza, was a successful man who provided the financial means for his ex-wife to raise their children without having to work. However, I have read nothing that postulated the remote possibility that the father's absence from the home was responsible for his son's failures. He admitted to learning about his son's crime from the news and appears completely dumbstruck that his son had the capacity for this level of psychopathy.

Also, the media have consistently displayed a disingenuous amazement that this picturesque town could spawn this type of violence. History suggests that insulated exurbs with a large population of gun enthusiasts, inexplicable paranoia, haughty facades and intolerance of eccentricities are fertile grounds for spontaneous violence among their troubled pariahs.

Overall, it seems the media implicitly accept the premise that mental illness is the only plausible explanation for the shooter's behavior, because otherwise, he was an ordinary young man with an ordinary life. What about emotional trauma or family dysfunction? This statement is not meant to be an affront on the Lanza family or the Sandy Hook community; however, as hard as the media are trying, there is simply no way to examine the shooter's mental state without considering the undercurrents of family and community that shaped his existence.

Beyond biases in media reporting, I am most concerned that the Sandy Hook shooting will mutate the development of school mental-health policies and practices at predominantly black schools, much in the same way that the Columbine, Colo., tragedy shaped school security. Today 19 percent of black schoolchildren and 21 percent of white schoolchildren are diagnosed with a disability by the time they reach the ninth grade, according to the High School Longitudinal Survey. In this edition of Show Me the Numbers, I separate the facts from the myths about mental-health challenges among black schoolchildren. What do young people with mental-health challenges really need from adults and schools?