The recent Santa Barbara mass killings and the associated “manifesto” as well as the surrounding grief and anguish evoke the intense urgency to prevent future repeat episodes. Writing in the OP-Ed NYT 5-28-2014, Richard Friedman cogently presents the difficulties in predicting which mentally ill person will become violent.
Though a fellow psychiatrist, my background and years of review of the individual histories of not only homicidal males, but also highly productive individuals leads me to the following opinion that does not question the wisdom of Dr. Friedman, but may add an additional preventive strategy.
All of the mass murderers, from Whitman at UT (not ostensibly mentally ill) through Newtown to the present horrors in Isla Vista and the UCSB campus seem to have one common theme among other factors, which at first glance may seem irrelevant. That theme is major play deprivation, and the additional experiences of powerlessness, humiliation (imagined or real) practice with weaponry, and a deep sense of vengeance, again, imagined or real. The signs of potential violent, potentially antisocial and depressive outpourings were evident from preschool onward, and were manifested in the absence or aberrance of normal give and take play behaviors. In none of those I have personal studied, was authentic play remediation professionally provided.
A close look at the biology and neuroscience of play reveals it to be a fundamental survival aspect of all social mammals, with measurable negative consequences in controlled laboratory settings that limit or deter animal play behavior. The linkages from the objective findings in animal play deprivation to the clinical findings in humans is, as yet unproven. However, the subcortical physiology and anatomy is similar, and the inability of play deprived animals to deter aggression, or to socialize comfortably with fellow pack members is demonstrable. The remediation of these socialization deficits in the animals by inclusion of play in developmentally appropriate forms reveals the effectiveness of play as a means of achieving more social normalcy and non-violent alternatives in the playful social mammal domains.
So the point of this blog is that by identifying aberrant or absent play capabilities EARLY, and in pre-school or elementary school settings remediating these deficits, even if the child has some “hard’ signs of future mental illness may well prevent what will later become a brooding, hardened personal private pact to kill and to die.