A regular reader of this column asked me why I considered a killer to be ‘incapable of benefiting’ from psychotherapeutic help. She was referring to my 2007 article published shortly after the Virginia Tech shooting. She wondered why I, as a therapist, wouldn’t echo the opinions of certain mental health professionals that ‘If only this suicidal young man could have obtained the help he needed, this never would have happened.’
From everything we’ve learned since the tragedy, this perpetrator had a single-minded commitment to acting on the belief that others must pay for his misery. I don’t see him being talked out of this deep-seated conviction rooted in a fundamental and malevolent premise that life is hopeless.
There’s a world of difference between a depressed and suicidal person who wants to end it all, and an actual terrorist who is after something entirely different. A clinically depressed person has reached a level of despair and, in many cases, anger, where he is simply seeking escape through suicide. There might be a desire to emotionally hurt others, i.e., ‘I’ll show you! I’ll end it all!’ But while suicide is tragic, it isn’t terrorism.
The desire to destroy others is completely different. In his book, ‘Inside the Criminal Mind,’ psychologist and author Stanton Samenow states that the criminal mindset is different from everyone else’s. To the criminal, the goal is to harm others. Any feeling of regret is not because he realizes that he was wrong; he only regrets not having done a better job at it — especially when he gets caught. Working for years with hard-core, violent criminals in a federal psychiatric institution, Dr. Samenow concluded that psychotherapy can perhaps challenge, but rarely change, the criminal mindset. To think that genuine criminals reform themselves is largely a fantasy borne of ignorance about how these kinds of people actually think.
The deranged young man who shot all those people at Virginia Tech could not have been helped. At the time, I received many emails asking if his decision to kill himself was the result of an ‘aha!’ moment in which he grasped the gravity of the carnage he had created. The videos that the killer sent to NBC before the shootings put to rest any doubt as to whether the murder-suicide plans were in the works from the beginning. The central theme in these rambling tirades was, ‘I don’t have a choice about this.’ All criminals assume this. They see themselves as the victims, not the people they victimize. Unfortunately, many people in our legal system and in the mental health field don’t do anything to dispel this dangerously flawed attitude.
This and other incidents like this are grotesque examples of something that also applies in much less dramatic situations. We accept that people make choices. This not only applies to mass murderers, but also to so many others who are decent, but use bad judgment. Their loved ones and other interested parties sometimes urge them to ‘get help,’ assuming that they will suddenly change simply because some professional tells them to.
In these day-to-day situations, the better solution for those concerned is to take a look at one’s OWN behaviors. ‘Am I enabling this person? What am I doing, if anything, to make it easier for him or her to be dysfunctional?’ In short, rather than getting caught up in changing the mind of someone unwilling to listen, be true to yourself and refuse to buy into their nonsense.
No one can ever be certain if this would have prevented the Virginia Tech disaster four years ago. I suspect that expelling a student who stalked others; barring him forever from campus without concern for lawsuits or political incorrectness might have gone a long way toward protecting the lives of the blameless victims. This would have required a shift from the politically sacrosanct idea of ‘getting help,’ or somehow magically changing the mind of an obviously irrational person.
Psychotherapy can only help those willing to help themselves. If more people had focused on stopping the criminal rather than thinking of ways to ‘help’ him, innocent lives might have been spared.