Tuesday, July 24, 2012


As a psychologist, I can't resist commenting on the Aurora movie theater shooting.  My initial reaction was probably much like everyone else, horror, shock, and sadness.  Now, like many others, I have become curious.  Mostly, I am curious about this wack-job that was responsible for such evil, 24 year old James Holmes.  We all want to know why such a horrible act of evil could happen and what kind of person could have done such a thing.

I was telling my hubby shortly after the shooting my prediction that soon the media would start discussing why James Holmes wasn't receiving psychiatric care, or questioning whether people knew he was a nut (very professional language, I know).  And, if people knew he was a nutty-buddy, why didn't they seek help for him, turn him into authorities, etc.  It seems like the discussion following many of these mass shootings quickly turns to how our mental health system is a huge failure.  Of course, that makes me defensive, even though I know it's sadly true.

But, this time, it seems no one knew that James Holmes had mental health issues (or no one that is talking about it at least).  He seemed brilliant, but not violent.  No erratic behavior.  No disturbing writings in elementary school.  No torturing of animals or fire-starting. 

This lack of early evidence of mental illness probably indicates that James Holmes is not a sociopath.  Meaning, technically, he does not have a psychopathic personality that is characterized by a lack of a sense of morality.  Sociopaths are those truly evil people who from an early age show no value in life.  They kill for pleasure and have no remorse.   They kill animals as toddlers, set fires as school-aged children, run away as teens, and act completely anti-social as adults, often hurting others without remorse.

Even if he isn't technically a sociopath, there is no doubt, that James Holmes is suffering some type of mental illness.  From the looks at the pictures from his first court appearance, where he appears dazed, dozes off, and otherwise looks "strange," one might easily suggest that he has been given psychotropic meds to help treat a mental illness.  But, wouldn't that be a horrible move on the part of the defense, who might want to claim insanity?  If he truly was mentally ill enough to be medicated, then the defense would be smartest to let the court see this right away.

Instead, here are my explanations for James Holmes's behavior (killing and courtroom).  First, he may have had a psychotic break brought on by a life stressor (that we don't know about yet).  Twenties are the prime years for psychotic breaks.  I remember when I turned 30 years old, I was quite happy because I knew I was probably out of the woods for psychosis.

When someone has a psychotic break, they are likely to become delusional - believing things that aren't true.  Delusions are often paranoid or narcissistic, like, maybe, "I am The Joker."  Psychosis can also involve hallucinations, hearing or seeing things that are not really there.  Sometimes "command hallucinations" tell a person to do something they would not normally do, such as kill themselves or others. 

Psychosis can be a symptom of schizophrenia or many other mental health disorders.  I think a likely explanation for his seemingly delusional thinking combined with what appears to be a very intense level of activity the days before the shooting, could easily be explained by Bipolar Disorder with Psychotic Features.   People in a manic phase of
Bipolar often stay up for days with levels of activity, have narcissistic-type beliefs, and feel invincible.  Sounds like what we know so far about Mr. Holmes, right?

His odd courtroom behavior could  be from experiencing active psychosis, leaving a manic phase (exhaustion), or it could be a brilliant neuroscience student trying to fool us all into believing he's insane.

Does my hypothesizing help us understand what happened with James Holmes?  Probably not.  Do we even know what is really going on with James Holmes?  Surely a thousand journalists and psychologists will voice their opinions.  But, here is the truth.  Evil exists.  It is difficult to explain why evil exists without recognizing the father of all evil that my beloved Bible talks clearly about, "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." (1 Peter 5:8).

Jesus described the source of evil well when he said, "You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies." (John 8:44).

Ephesians 6:12 says, "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."

How do we live in this world where such evil exists?  Where is our hope?  Where there is light, my frends, darkness flees.  "The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light." (Romans 13:12).  And, who is our source of light? "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." (James 1:17). 

This is what I cling to in times like these, when evil is so apparent and so hard to explain, even with psychological terms.  I know the source of all goodness and draw hope from the promise that in the end, it is He that overcomes evil! 


  1. Thank you for writing about this horrible tragedy. I found your aricle very interesting.

  2. I found this interesting and you could be correct on the diagnosis! I was thinking social path, but his history does not back that up. Very tragic!

    1. Thanks! The diagnosis is really a shot in the dark with such little information. And, really, what does it matter? But, it's a "fun" exercise to try (well, for us psychologists anyway).

      Ok, so everyone is showing up anonymous today. Grrrr.

  3. You have some very interesting points. I guess it is human nature for everyone to ask "why?" I think there are probably a lot of pieces missing from this puzzle.

  4. Definitely! And, we're learning more every day!

  5. April your profile select only allow anonymous right now! I dont know why, it was working!


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