Monday, August 19, 2019

Faculty workshop reflects on psychology of Sandy Hook shooting


On Thursday November 14, the common hour event at Gallows Hill featured the interdisciplinary workshop led by Trinity professors Diana Paulin (English/American Studies) and Sarah Raskin (Neuroscience) along with Hartford Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Harold Schwartz. In the discussion they addressed the issue of mental health and the social and cultural reception of madness in the context of the shooting at an elementary school last winter in Sandy Hook, CT.

The three perspectives offered a multi-layered insight into the problems surrounding mental illnesses and the possible social control of “madness”. Advertised as an interdisciplinary workshop, the three lecturers showed how their respective fields of academia could add to the debate of psychiatric treatment, crime control, and the issue of collective response to such tragedies as a mass murder with school children victims.

Diana Paulin addressed the problem of the social perception and representation of madness. Incidents when a collective of people must respond to an act of madness unveil the social norms and beliefs of a society. Professor Paulin highlighted the fact that the medium of such response is deeply embedded, and thus affected by, the very language through which a society communicates. The shifting terminology of mental illnesses is also a good example how both professionals and everyday people are constantly trying to grasp what they mean by “illness” or “madness”: “neurodiversity,” “shifting normalcy,” or “changing landscape of mind” are evidence of unsuccessful attempts to construct a neutral language of madness. Professor Paulin also emphasized the role the media is playing in constructing a specific perspective of the representation of madness. 

In the second lecture, Sarah Raskin addressed the topic of brain damage. Her lecture proved to be the link between Diana Paulin’s socio-critical analysis and Dr. Harold Schwartz’s focused assessment of the Sandy Hook shooting. Her lecture presented the multi-faceted approaches to evaluate and define brain damage. The lecture also made a point by highlighting the fact that different definitions of such a vague term like “brain damage” can greatly affect nation-wide statistics on patients suffering from brain damage. After presenting the anatomical map of the brain and the ways in which physical impacts can cause damage to certain sections of the brain, Professor Raskin continued her presentation by focusing on the issue of “mild brain damage,” (mTBI). Mild brain damage is a problem that is not easily approachable or assessable. According to statistics, mild brain damage not only affects veterans and military personnel, but is also one of the leading causes of disability and deaths among juveniles. The problem of keeping a record of people affected by mild brain damage is the disparity in accessing data: Professor Raskin explained how social environment, racial weighing, and crime record could greatly modify statistics. Furthermore, such statistics may be drawn out of context and be abused. The second lecture thus ended on the note that mTBI is a crucial category in addressing psychosocial symptoms produced by, for instance, young people, but is very hard to frame due to its broad range of variations.

In the last lecture, Dr. Harold Schwartz addressed the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, where a 20-year-old young man shot 20 children and six adult staff members after shooting his own mother. He committed suicide at the scene. In less than five minutes, it became the second deadliest mass murder shooting by a single person in the history of the United States.

After providing the necessary details on the incident, Dr. Schwartz presented statistics on weapon control in multiple countries. His first conclusion during his lecture is that more severe gun control can greatly reduce the potential of such incidents occurring again. However, his main focus is on the 20-year-old murderer, Adam Lanza, and the way he became a psychotic criminal without anybody noticing it in his community.

Dr. Schwarz’s analysis found that the boy, was addicted to video games, a loner, and a solipsistic “grievance collector.” According to Dr. Schwarz, Lanza could not relieve himself from inner frustrations but did intend to “leave a mark” in the world, as it is normal among young and ambitious men. His one-sided perspective on the world left him to be a solipsist who is devoid of any exterior reflections on his behavior.

Dr. Schwartz’s solution to avoid such state of mind rests on three legs: the concept of the theory of mind; mirror neurons; and Polyvagal Theory. The theory of mind implies the mentalization process of the individual, when a mental agenda or focus is created. Mirror neurons explain how an inter-subjective relationship between two people (as in: a face-to-face setup) can have an effect on both individuals. Polyvagal Theory explains how physiological state affects psychological experience, for instance, in a social context.

Dr. Schwartz’s assessment notes that instead of treating young offenders as criminals with the punishment of seclusion, it is more important and beneficial to lift these “criminals” out of their solipsistic environment and integrate them back into a more thriving and input-rich socio-cultural environment.

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