Shifting Sandy Hook information landscape means understanding will have to wait

by John Oldham, MD, MS on December 21, 2012 · 0 comments

in violence

Sandy Hook tragedyThe nature of the devastating tragedy in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, is virtually unimaginable, and the outpouring of grief from our nation has been understandably strong and sustained. A torrent of information has assailed us from every news outlet with almost hypnotic magnetism; we all want to know how to understand how this could have happened.

I do not presume to have the answers, although I wish I did. Many media personalities and news anchors, however, seem all too eager to bring us “breaking news” that promises to reveal the facts. The real fact is, however, that we just don’t know enough with certainty yet, and whether or not we ever will remains to be seen.

But we do know a few things that I’d like to emphasize: 

  1. Let’s hold judgment about news reports of “facts” that have not been confirmed. Any attentive viewer or listener since December 14 can recite a list of definite facts that have been claimed that have turned out not to be true.
  2. One critical point is that we still do not know very much about Adam Lanza, except that he has been troubled, isolated and uncomfortable with others (I believe there are enough first-hand reports from classmates and others who knew him to support this conclusion).
  3. We do not know very much, either, about Mrs. Lanza, Adam’s mother, except that there are many questions of importance – such as how to understand that she collected deadly weapons in her home.
  4. We also know that, unlike many news reports, most psychiatric disorders are not associated with violent behavior. A far greater risk factor is substance use or abuse, or even just being male. It is our responsibility to speak out against the pervasive stigma about mental illness, reflecting lack of understanding of brain disorders. Brain disorders such as depression, bipolar illness and personality disorders are biological illnesses, and there are good treatments for these disorders. But people suffering from these illnesses only improve if they get the treatment they need.

We all share high levels of concern and sympathy for the victims of this recent tragedy and their families and loved ones. As we improve our understanding of the facts about mental illness, I believe that we can intercept and intervene in ways that can make a real difference.

Editor’s note: For other posts related to the tragedy, check out:

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