Editorial Violence

We Failed the Students of Parkland. But We Also Failed Nikolas Cruz

Jodi Jacobson

At some point we have to acknowledge that the sheer pain of a Nikolas Cruz or an Adam Lanza, or the children being recruited into gangs or by terrorist groups is in and of itself worth addressing. If we can't completely reorient our thinking on the lost people in this country, we are the only ones to blame for the consequences.

As the students of Parkland, Florida, have been pointing out relentlessly, the deaths of 17 students and teachers represent the failure of adults—those in power and the rest of us—to do anything meaningful about gun violence in this country, despite many prior mass shootings and an unconscionable number of gun-related deaths in the United States each year. Collectively, we’ve failed to eliminate the proximate causes of gun violence, including virtually unlimited access to weapons of mass destruction like AR-15s. We’ve failed to grapple with the fact we have far higher rates of gun violence than in any other country of similar social and economic status. And we’ve failed, as Sarah Ruiz-Grossman points out in HuffPost, to address the “common reality of routine gun homicides in the country, which disproportionately affect communities of color, and specifically black Americans.”

We also, however, failed the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, and many others like him.

The aftermath of the Parkland shooting has included necessary examination of which authorities received, but did not act upon, tips that Cruz was dangerous. It’s obvious that Cruz is guilty of a heinous crime. But the more I read about him and his past, the clearer it becomes that here was a seriously troubled young adult crying out for help that never came.

A February 23 article in the New York Times describes in detail how troubled Cruz was.

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“I know he’s going to explode,” a woman who knew Mr. Cruz said on the F.B.I.’s tip line on Jan. 5. Her big worry was that he might resort to slipping “into a school and just shooting the place up.” 

In late 2017, according to the Times, a family friend, Roxanne Deschamps, who took Mr. Cruz in after the death of his mother, called 911 to say: “I need someone here because I’m afraid he comes back and he has a lot of weapons.”  She feared what Cruz would do if he returned after he’d punched holes in the walls of her home and gotten into a fight with her son.

Perhaps most poignant or most chilling, Cruz himself cried out for help. According to the Times:

Mr. Cruz, 19, himself called the authorities just after Thanksgiving, describing how he had been in a fight and was struggling with the death of his mother. “The thing is I lost my mother a couple of weeks ago, so like I am dealing with a bunch of things right now,” he said in a childlike voice, sounding agitated and out of breath.

This leaves me wondering: Were all the social services and police who did check on Cruz only assessing his risk of carrying out an act of violence on others? Or was anyone there to ask: “Nikolas, are you OK? What do you need?” Did anyone say, “Nikolas, come with me; we care about you and can help you?”

Members of my family had diagnosable mental illnesses. And I have clinical depression, which I long ago learned how to manage. So I am no stranger to these issues. At one point in my twenties, my first experience with severe depression led me to think of killing myself, that is how deep was the despair I felt. I can’t diagnose Nikolas Cruz, but CNN reports that, according to a 2016 Florida Department of Children and Families report, he “struggled with depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and autism.” 

So as I read about Cruz, I imagine a young man, very alone and in very, very deep despair without the tools to handle it. Did Cruz only matter after he became a “shooter.” And was that the only path we left him?

In the past week, a lot has been said about “addressing mental health” as part of the response to school shootings, most of it in the context of preventing someone with a mental illness from getting a gun.

But at the highest levels, the discussion has really been less about mental health than it has been about stigma and blame and blanket statements about mental health that are blatantly untrue. Not surprisingly, President Donald Trump spoke out loudly on the subject, but in terms that are ill-informed, hateful, and stigmatizing, calling Cruz a “savage sicko.”

Trump focuses only in terms of how mentally ill persons pose harm to others, not how to help people suffering from mental illness, because they are people deserving of care. He’s labeled as “dangerous” a wide swath of people with mental illness, inferring, for example, that homeless people with mental illness (or all homeless people?) are dangerous. “You have these people living on the streets, and I can say in many cases throughout the country, they are very dangerous and shouldn’t be there,” Trump said Thursday.

This is utterly and completely wrong. As CNN reporter Jen Christensen writes “studies show otherwise. The greater majority of people with a mental illness will never be violent, research has found; in fact, people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence.

A paper in the journal World Psychiatry cited by Christensen further states that [emphasis added]: 

Mental disorders are neither necessary nor sufficient causes of violence. Major determinants of violence continue to be socio-demographic and economic factors. Substance abuse is a major determinant of violence and this is true whether it occurs in the context of a concurrent mental illness or not …. Members of the public exaggerate both the strength of the association between mental illness and violence and their own personal risk. 

But the very people criticizing the lack of mental health care for Cruz in the wake of Parkland are those who are cutting the very funding needed for mental health services. For all the talk about mental health care in the wake of the Parkland shooting, Trump’s own budget makes dramatic cuts to mental health care services, access to which both federal and state funding is absolutely essential.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, public funding plays a larger role in financing mental health care (61 percent of all expenditures) than it does overall health services (46 percent of all expenditures). Medicaid is currently the largest source of financing for behavioral health services in the nation, covering over a quarter of all expenditures: “Medicaid plays a large role in financing behavioral health services because its eligibility rules reach many individuals with significant need; it covers a broad range of benefits; and its financing structure allows states to expand services with federal financial assistance. Medicaid coverage of behavioral health benefits has been pivotal to deinstitutionalization and adoption of new treatment modalities.”

The Associated Press reports that “Trump’s latest budget would slash the major source of public funds for mental health treatment, the Medicaid program serving more than 70 million low-income and disabled people.” That same budget, by the way, “also calls for a 36 percent cut to an Education Department grant program that supports safer schools, reducing it by $25 million from the current level of $67.5 million” even while Republican politicians call for making schools into military zones. And these cuts fall disproportionately on communities of color, and on the poor, the disabled, and the isolated in every community.

Florida GOP Governor Rick Scott and the state’s Republican-controlled legislature also have slashed funding for mental health. Florida has among the lowest rates of spending on Medicaid in the country, and in part as a result is ranked 44th among all states in terms of access to and support for mental health care among those who need it. Now, in addition to proposing a new program called the “Violent Threat Restraining Order,” Scott claims he will allocate an additional $50 million to mental health services for children and teens. It’s not clear this is anywhere near enough to fill the extensive gaps in care in the state, nor through what mechanism Scott will seek the funds since the legislature ends its current session on March 9. This is clearly but one issue of accountability that needs to be addressed in the coming months, after the headlines and the public statements fade, and especially as Scott considers challenging Florida’s current Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson for his seat.

There are many reasons that people commit acts of violence, and I am not seeking to excuse any act of violence for any reason. But it seems undeniable that a common thread among at least some of the young mass shooters in the United States is a combination of mental health challenges and severe social isolation. This appears to have been true of Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter. And some have suggested the same of Dylann Roof, who Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker described as “a sad young man who marinated in one existential crisis after another until deciding that killing people was a certain route to self-possession.”

To reiterate, for every mass shooter, there are millions of people struggling with various mental disorders who are never violent, but whose lives are deeply affected and who nonetheless receive no or inadequate care. But we are failing most of them.

Lacking a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, a sense that someone is there to help you, a sense that you matter in the world is a common denominator in so many social and economic challenges right now, from the recruitment of young people into terrorist groups to the recruitment of young people into gangs, like Trump’s favorite punching bag, MS-13. Yes, toxic masculinity and racism and hatred are all underlying causes of these massacres. But it is not enough to say that. We need to deeply examine who and what is perpetuating these things in order to address them with compassion and resolve.

We are the root cause of the problems we are facing and we are making it worse. Instead of taking account of the lack of care and the lack of broader social compassion and the lack of investment in services for those who are disconnected or suffering, we make it worse. Instead of building a national foundation for mental health, for inclusion, for acceptance, for belonging, for love, we disown people with mental health problems, and we leave these problems to families alone to address. And instead of addressing the root causes, politicians are using these issues for political gain: Our own president and his party are stoking fear, stoking hatred, stoking racism, stoking toxic masculinity, and all the while cutting funds for social services for youth, for education, for mental health.

At some point we all have to take responsibility. We all have to acknowledge that the sheer pain of a Nikolas Cruz or an Adam Lanza, or the children being recruited into gangs or by ISIS is in and of itself worth addressing. That these people matter in and of themselves, not just for the sake of whether they may present a clear and present danger to others. We all have to be willing to invest in community supports for people who are isolated and lost. And as Pamela Merritt wrote last November, journalists have to do a far better job of reporting on these issues. If we can’t completely reorient our thinking on the lost people in this country, we are the only ones to blame for the consequences.

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