Violence comes from different streams. We need to study it just as a civil engineer patiently plans where to build a dam to stop flooding. We can’t just put a dam anywhere.
Reducing the tools of violence ought to reduce the ability to express the impulses that cause violence. The greater challenge is to remove those impulses. One aspect of this is for social pressures to clearly say that violence is not acceptable, and all efforts to settle problems need to be done otherwise. Shooters appear to be indifferent to prevailing social pressures, but some may sense violence is not accepted because they suicide before they are caught, knowing they will be punished. Do they dislike the punishment or is their own death part of their message as well? People need to feel a community shame if they act violently, and an honor if resolution is done non-violently. Some sports release violent impulses, but modern rules limit the levels of violence from causing permanent damage, a safety net not known to many Romans and Mayans. (Think about cultures that are entertained by deadly sports; we do it symbolically.) Modern sports require reasonably, and equally, skilled and equipped competitors. School shooters or sexual abusers do not want resilient competitors.
One form of common violence is done with clever manipulations of information or power, such as in legal or financial circles when one side tries to destroy or control the other. There may be no immediate physical violence, per say, but the effect can be quite violent in terms of what it does to the looser. We might call this a ‘gentlemen’s violence.’ No blood is spilled but it is still quite destructive. Verbal abuse falls into this category. Sometimes the competitors are equally matched, such as one political party or corporation competing with another similar group. But the competitors may be far from equal, such as a large corporation dealing with an improvised town or community. Violence is another way of saying “I want my way…”
The other form of typical abuse involves intentional, physically damaging behaviors. At times the two may cooperate in reaching a goal.
So what causes violence? It is a mixture of a reaction to psychosocial stresses, our convictions, and our genes.
The genetic element is called a polygenetic phenomenon. There may be a predisposition to aggression during certain stress situations, lest these people would be violent all the time. Examples of these influences can be the gene code flaw for tryptophan hydroxylase, which modulates the production of serotonin, was has been found in people with impulsive or aggressive behavior. Or there may be abnormalities in catechol O-methyltransferase, which has been associated with hostility. Family histories of adult antisocial behavior increase the risk of conduct disorders, aggression, and antisocial behavior in children through mixtures of genetic and social-learning influences. Reduced 5-HIAA (a metabolite of serotonin) has been associated with aggressive acts, and increased dopamine in the mesolimbic pathways that respond to environmental cues is associated with irritability and aggression. Increased levels of norepinephrine in the central nervous system may produce increased aggression. Certainly other biological other systems are involved, but many of them still live outside of our knowledge base.
Some medical conditions, such as a brain injury or seizures, might (rarely) manifest in violence. The combination of a grandiosity and delusional system could foster violence. And of course substance abuse is a pure venom to brain chemistry. Psychologically, violence seems to be associated with amalgams of self-rationalization, self-survival and self-importance. It is when “I want things done my way because …..”
Mental illness might be described in social or religious terms, such as when a social group believes that anyone not agreeing with their convictions and life-style has a ‘mental illness.’ The actual numbers of the mentally ill, using general descriptions, that do violence is quite small. Violence can be from a type of mental illness because violence is ‘not valued a normal behavior’ in most societies, unless, of course the violence has a social sanction. (The victims might strongly disagree.)
Violent people tend to have higher clusters of personality abnormalities. Our understanding of personality disorders is becoming more and more biological, but medications are still not as helpful in treating them as are sophisticated verbal therapies.
When we hear that a shooter was on a psychiatric medication, we cannot assume that the basic diagnosis for which the medication was prescribed was correct. There is far too much under-diagnosing of personality disorders, and medication use is often just an effort to soften some of the attached manifestations; it does not fix the problem. Increasing mental health screening may identify some of these folks, but it does little to both fund the proper training of therapists and to pay for the lengthy care these conditions require; good plans get watered down as the real costs begin to emerge. Many of these patients end up in jail because we lack the skills and resources to treat them in the open community.
Then we see news reports like this:
‘DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) (Jan 23, 2013) — Dozens of states have slashed spending on mental health care over the last four years, driven by the recession’s toll on revenue and, in some cases, a new zeal to shrink government. But that trend may be heading for a U-turn in 2013 after last year’s shooting rampages by two mentally disturbed gunmen.’
Huge increases in mental health money may not drop violence as much as wanted because the mental health filters may still miss this sub-group. Increased mental health funding will probably most reduce violence towards oneself, as in decreasing substance abuse or depression. There is no universal cause of violence. There are, however, many already known, measurable, and understandable triggers if we study and intervene, case by case.
A current hot topic is if violent video games induce violent behaviors. A recent Florida Psychiatric Society podcast, The Experts Speak, (click here to listen) offers a good overview.