The Navy Yard Shooting: Déjà Vu All Over Again?

by E. Fuller Torrey

Do you have the impression that mass shootings are happening more often? Your impression is correct. In 2000, the New York Times published a detailed survey of 100 “rampage killers” who committed mass killings between 1949 and 1999. Of the 100, 73 had taken place between 1990 and 1999. Two other studies have also reported a definite increase in such shootings over approximately the past 25 years.

So why are they happening? Approximately half of them are caused by individuals with untreated severe mental illness. For example, this was true for the shootings at Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown and, based on preliminary reports, may also be the case for the Navy Yard shootings. Over the past half century we have emptied out our state mental hospitals so that today we have only 5 percent of the public psychiatric beds compared to 50 years ago. And in discharging the patients, we have failed to insure that they get ongoing treatment.

Exactly 50 years next month, President John Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Centers Act, effectively federalizing what had been until then, a state responsibility. It turned out to have been the most well-meaning but misguided act of the Kennedy administration. The consequences are now everywhere visible among our homeless, among the mentally ill in jails and prisons, and in these mass killings. I have detailed this history in American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System being published by Oxford University Press next month.

— E. Fuller Torrey, MD, is founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va.