On Wednesday afternoon, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz allegedly entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and killed 17 people with a semiautomatic weapon, injuring 23 others. Immediately, questions arose about his mental health: Were there signs he might do something like this?
Those who knew Cruz described him as a “troubled kid.” Indeed, he was expelled from his high school for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. According to a New York Times report, there were many red flags — from an uncontrollable temper to destructive behavior to shouting at other students “randomly and menacingly.” He also reportedly wrote violent and threatening social media posts that were reported to the FBI before the shooting happened, and he was violent and aggressive towards women he knew.
With all these red flags, it’s tough not to think about what could have been done to prevent this tragedy. Making it harder to get guns is certainly one way, but paying attention to mental health cues — especially violent behavior towards romantic partners — could make a difference.
Before we go any further, we want to be clear about one thing: No one is to blame for this mass shooting — or any other act of violence — besides the person or people who did it.
But if you think a friend or acquaintance might be struggling with their mental health, there are ways you can step in and support them.
“It’s challenging to realize that someone you love has deep-seated anger issues, a violent temper, or exhibits unpredictable behavior. It’s normal to feel scared and a desire to avoid the issue altogether, hoping it will go away,” psychotherapist Dr. Kathryn Smerling tells HelloGiggles. “But in reality, the first thing you need to do is simply accept the fact that there is a problem and approach your friend about it in the right way.”
That means, be present for them. Listen to them attentively, and really ask what they need and what you can do to help. You never know what someone’s really going through unless they tell you. According to Smerling, your friend may be exhibiting certain behaviors due to previous trauma, psychological issues, medical conditions, or personal problems at home.
It may take more than just one attempt at a conversation to get to the root of their issues, but don’t try to pressure them.
It’s important to note that research has found that most people with psychiatric disorders are non-violent. In fact, solely blaming mental illness for violence just contributes to the stigma surrounding it. But if you feel like there’s really something to be concerned about, don’t stay quiet.
“Nikolas dropped out of treatment,” psychiatrist and author Dr. Carole Lieberman says. “He needed more psychotherapy, medication, and maybe even a hospitalization. So if you have a friend who is struggling with psychological problems — from depression to anxiety to obsession with violent entertainment and violent tendencies — the best thing you can do is to tell them that you care and help them to find a therapist.”
Lieberman stresses that those suffering from severe mental health issues need psychiatric treatment. And if they won’t seek it out on their own, she advises talking to someone with more influence about your concerns, such as their parent, teacher, a confidant, or even law enforcement, if necessary.
Could more psychiatric help have prevented this tragedy? Honestly, we’ll never know. And mental-health care is criminally out of reach for many in the U.S. But one thing we can learn from this is to say something when we think it’s necessary.