How Did We Get Here? …and How Do We Change It?

Perspective.  That’s really what we’re looking for.  It’s what we need in order to make sense of what we see and hear.  It’s what is required if we’re going to effectively change any of the things that are disturbing.  My hope is that this provides a little perspective, and may serve as a catalyst to kick off some frank discussions about solutions.  


Problems vs. Symptoms

When we’re talking about complicated situations in which we’re likely to enact legislative changes, it’s paramount that we distinguish between problems and symptoms.  I’ll endeavor to identify these as we go along, but this is also a handy distinction to keep in mind anytime you’re discussing, reading about, or experiencing something that’s being labeled “a problem.”

More often than not, what we see, hear, or experience is a symptom.  The problem is the reason why the symptom exists.  If we try to “fix” (or mask) the symptom without addressing the underlying problem, all we’ve done is insist that the problem manifest itself via a new symptom, and the process starts all over again.

For example, a runny nose is not a problem, just like a skin rash is not a problem.  They’re irritating and can be troublesome, but they are merely symptoms.  If you mask the symptom, you haven’t really solved anything.  You’ve gained a little temporary relief, but the reason why you’re experiencing these things — the underlying problem — is still present and symptoms will inevitably resurface, sometimes via a brand new symptom.

I’m a fan of data and believe that we have enough data to begin whittling away at the symptoms to reveal the underlying problem(s), which is absolutely necessary, since our emotional reaction to an event (especially when law-making is involved) is almost always the wrong one.

Guess we should start with the big one…


Guns: symptom. 

Guns scare us, in large part because they have the potential to do a great deal of harm.  But they also have the potential to prevent harm, even stop harm that is already in progress, not only from other citizens or the wilderness around us, but also from our own government.  For example, firearms are used 4x as often in self-defense as they are to perpetrate violent crimes, and most of the time (~76%), the firearm is never discharged.  The fact is, we’ll never be without them, and we’ll definitely never be without the need of them in one capacity or another.

Let me ask: if you put a gun in your hand right now, are you incited to shoot people with it?  Do you suddenly feel the urge to seek out a place where you can exact harm on others?  If you answered “no,” this is just one of the indications that the gun is not the problem.

For instance, this is the abstract from a paper that’s available via the Social Science Research Network, Multiple Victim Public Shootings:

“Few events obtain the same instant worldwide news coverage as multiple victim public shootings. These crimes allow us to study the alternative methods used to kill a large number of people (e.g., shootings versus bombings), marginal deterrence and the severity of the crime, substitutability of penalties, private versus public methods of deterrence and incapacitation, and whether attacks produce “copycats.” […] Our results are surprising and dramatic. While arrest or conviction rates and the death penalty reduce “normal” murder rates and these attacks lead to new calls from more gun control, our results find that the only policy factor to have a consistently significant influence on multiple victim public shootings is the passage of concealed handgun laws. We explain why public shootings are more sensitive than other violent crimes to concealed handguns, why the laws reduce the number of shootings and have an even greater effect on their severity.”

If we think about human behavior for a bit, this makes sense.  With most mass shootings ending in suicide, the legal ramifications of the act would have little effect on one’s decision to go through with it, but knowing whether or not your potential victims are likely to return fire could.  Even if the offender is not afraid of dying, firing on armed persons would certainly prevent whatever plan they had from being successfully carried out.

Here’s another question, though: are we looking too narrowly at this symptom?  We’ve been focusing on mass shootings, but isn’t it mass violence that we’re really concerned with?  Using bombs/grenades/explosives, arson, intentionally downing airplanes, mass vehicular homicide, and guns, with the intent to kill a lot of people?

The recent, brutal, and senseless killing spree has us hyper-sensitive and laser-focused on gun violence, but violence in general is where our focus should be.  Fertilizer was used in Oklahoma, pipe bombs and arson have been destroying schools, churches, homes, and public places for decades, and you’re more likely to be poisoned than assaulted with a gun So, while I know we’re all scared and upset that such a horrible act was carried out, reacting against the tools won’t solve anything — there are many, many other options out there.  This is not to say that any discussion around firearms, their use and accessibility should be avoided — everything is up for discussion at this point — but it’s not the easy answer we’re all hoping for.


Violence in general: symptom.

…though, we’re getting warmer.

Leaving our nation’s violent history out of it for now, looking at the present-day US, it takes a concerted effort to avoid being exposed to some sort of violence (repeatedly) on a daily basis.  Each and every newscast is riddled with violence, add to that the overabundance of online media outlets and the sensationalism that comes with each one, humanity is victimized in most song lyrics, the number of police and/or murder-related television dramas is staggering, the most popular cable programming is as violent as R-rated movies, and then there are the movies…

And it’s not just random violence that’s highlighted for our entertainment, it’s violence as a means of solving problems (or violence as justifiable revenge).  Got a problem with someone or something?  Fight about it.  The one who survives gets to be ‘right.’  And we don’t see the aftermath of these fights, either.  The surgeries, physical therapy, or funerals of those bystanders who were collateral damage, the broken families that result, or the amount of pain that these fights would really inflict on the people involved.

Also of note: when compared to other industrialized countries, yes – they also have violent tv, games, and movies, but not to the extent that we have here in the US. Elsewhere, violence-as-entertainment is not the commodity that we’ve made it.  It’s still optional.  You are far more likely to see sex and nudity in your entertainment options if you travel elsewhere than you are to see gruesome or brutal depictions of human violence.

But does our violent culture cause mass murders?  No, not by itself.  It’s still a symptom.  So, let’s dig a little deeper into what may cause some people to be more susceptible to the negative ramifications of our violent culture.


Mental health: symptom.

We’ve come to accept the various ways in which mental and emotional health are related to violence of this magnitude.  So, maybe the root of the problem is poor support of the mental health industry?  I think we’re getting much warmer.  Adding a firearm to a situation where an individual has a hard time managing their emotions, or relating to other people, or relating to reality in general, and you’ve got a potentially dangerous situation.  Think for a moment about how someone may view human life or the consequences of their actions if they:

  1. have difficulty relating to other people and
  2. have been inundated with a steady barrage of violent content that treats other people like “extras” in a movie?

Would “other people” really hold the same value or mindspace that they hold for you and me?

Before I go much further, I’d like to point out that we have done some amazing things with prescription drugs.  But right up there with the US owning more firearms per capita than the rest of the world, the US also has more medicated persons per capita.  At least half of all Americans are taking at least one prescription drug, none of which have a short list of side-effects, all of which alter the body’s chemistry.  This is hardly minor.

Here’s some more from the abstract we looked at earlier:

“The criminals who commit these crimes are also fairly unusual, recent evidence suggests that about half of these criminals have received a ‘formal diagnosis of mental illness, often schizophrenia.‘”

Schizophrenia is only present in about 1% of the US population, and only about 26% of the US population is estimated to have a diagnosable mental illness, so this finding is pretty significant.

Let me say that again.

Mental illness, in general:

  • Only ~26% of the US population has a diagnosable mental illness
  • ~50% of the mass killers have a formal diagnosis of mental illness

Schizophrenia, specifically:

  • Present in ~1% of the US population
  • “Often” the diagnosis of ~50% of mass killers

Statistically speaking, this is very significant.

(Keep in mind that those without a formal diagnosis, aren’t necessarily mentally healthy — one has to be evaluated at some point in order to be diagnosed, so we simply don’t know what their prior mental state was.)

I’d like to posit that a mental health issue is the most significant common denominator in the kind of violence we’re attempting to cope with right now, but in trying to address mental health concerns, we may not be digging deep enough into the causes and are still trying to treat the symptom.

Mental health is about more than therapy or pharmaceuticals, isn’t it?  We know that there are a plethora of elements that affect one’s mental and emotional health that are currently outside of the health industry’s control.  For instance, food additives, artificial coloring, crop modifications, excessive amounts of certain foods, metals used in ‘cheap’ jewelry, adhesives, dyes, dangerous residues, and fabrics used for many consumer goods have been identified as elements that adversely affect the body’s chemistry.  For public health reasons, some countries have banned the use of GMO foods and many food additives that are used regularly in the US.

Is what we’re ingesting and absorbing making us ill, both physically and mentally?

There have also been numerous studies into behavioral changes as a result of simple diet adjustments.  Here are just a couple of observations:

  • 1,800 three-year-olds showed measurable behavioural improvements after cutting artificial ingredients (colourants and preservatives) from their diets for a single week (Bateman et al., 2004)
  • Shifting teenagers’ diets toward complex carbohydrates and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables at a Wisconsin high school for at-risk students reduced disruption, violence, drug abuse, suicide attempts, dropping out, headaches, stomach aches, and complaints of feeling tired, and significantly increased attendance, concentration, and academic performance (Keeley & Fields, 2004).

The first group were candidates for Ritalin — which would not have corrected the problem — and they would have been labeled with ‘needing medication’ for the rest of their lives.  The second group were already on the fast-track to juvenile detention centers (at the very least), but a change in just one aspect of their environment significantly altered this path.  Changes in diet can drastically affect the symptoms of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and other brain chemistry disorders.

Is it possible that one of our most precious commodities, our food, could be altering our chemistry enough to cause mental illness and violence/behavioral problems?  Well, yes.  Are these also the prerequisites for the majority of mass killings?  Also yesThen we may have just found the area that needs the most work.


Food supply: problem.

So, where do we go from here?

For years, we’ve been favoring the interests of “food” producers over those of individuals, of our citizens.  Systematically, we have collectively polluted and handicapped our citizens, while requiring individuals to shoulder the responsibility for each situation they find themselves in — from obesity to mental illness.  It’s time that we change this trend.  Opt instead to systemically promote the interests of the citizens.  Remember that the health and success of our citizens benefit the entire economy.  However, our fellow citizens cannot make these improvements, en mass, as long as the supply chain of resources has already been degraded and damaged.

Our food is making us sick.
Which helps the information and imagery we’re feeding our brains make us sicker.
…and it’s hurting the people around us.

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

~ H. L. Mencken

I’d love to say that the solution is simple.  With problems this complex, with layers upon layers of compounding symptoms, the solutions will be difficult, the solutions will be big, and there will be more than one solution.

We’re talking about a cultural overhaul, beginning with our food, the substances in our environments, and how we treat/address mental health issues.  We’re also talking about the need to address the symptoms along with the problem(s), because the symptoms already exist.

I have a number of ideas around addressing these large-scale items and would appreciate hearing other ideas as well.  Here are just a few (at high-level):

  • Increase funding for mental health organizations.  Insurance companies don’t need subsidizing/tax breaks, Mental health organizations do.  While we’re still working largely with symptoms here, it’s a necessary step as the need is both immediate and important.
  • Food supply: stop messing it up.  (There are a lot of details that go with this, but it’s a pretty simple concept.)
    • Revisit and rewrite the regulations regarding agriculture and livestock growth, processing, and distribution.
    • Revisit and rewrite local restrictions around growing and/or raising food on an individual basis.
    • Overhaul the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in its entirety.
  • Revisit and rewrite regulations regarding acceptable materials in consumer goods (imports and domestic) to reflect what we know about toxicity and health.
  • Develop incentives for media outlets that encourage more balanced (less-sensational) news programs.  (They generally follow the money.)
  • Revise television and movie rating systems to place a heavier weight on violence, which keeps it accessible (for those who are concerned about access), but somewhat less prominent (for those who are concerned about saturation).
  • While fully automatic weapons are generally unnecessary for citizens, let’s be honest: just about every currently manufactured firearm (aside from a shotgun) is a semi-automatic weapon, so let’s stop throwing around that term as if it means something malicious.  Semi-automatic only means is that you don’t have to cock or reload the weapon between shots.  The same goes for “assault rifle”.  The term is being wildly misused at the very best.  Is it time to revisit our gun control laws?  Why not.  Everything’s on the table for discussion, right?

When it comes to what we can do today, as individuals — I have some ideas around that, too:

  • Feed your kids (and yourself) fresh foods — locally grown if possible (this makes preservatives and anti-mold additives unnecessary).  It’s not true that “kids don’t like veggies” either.  The biggest issue is that they were not introduced to vegetables until after their food preferences were developed (and baby food doesn’t help — have you tasted that stuff?).  Personal tastes are pretty solid by 2 yrs old.  Still changeable?  You bet!  It’ll just take a bit more time and effort.
  • Insist on physical activity in your home.  Both sweat and tears transport toxins out of your body, and we could all use the extra help in this arena.  A brisk walk around the neighborhood and that sappy movie?  Perfect!
  • Remember: money talks.  Choose 5 (or more!) convenience items that you will no longer purchase, ever.  (Once this has become a habit, choose 5 more!)
  • Eliminate — or at least, drastically reduce — sugar consumption.  Refined sugar is linked to a myriad of both physical and mental issues — including, but not limited to: depression, schizophrenia, violence, memory loss, chronic inflammation (which increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and even some forms of cancer), and weight control.  Read the labels because sugar has been added to many foods you might not suspect (lunch meat, granola bars, potato chips, sausages, yogurt, breads, etc.), so you are probably already eating more sugar than you’re aware of.
  • Start locally:
    • Grow a few things on your balcony, patio, in your window, or in your yard that you can eat. There are lots of options!
    • Find a local health food store, co-op, or farm where you can get meat, fresh milk, butter, cheese, eggs, etc.  It’ll taste better than what you’re used to, won’t cost much more, and you’ll be able to eliminate the majority of the extra antibiotics, preservatives, coloring, and fillers that are normally added to your food (like “pink slime”).  You will feel better, too.  Personally, I eat less because I’m satisfied by the food I’m eating. << This is anecdotal, but it’s a really interesting trend to pay attention to for yourself.
  • Limit the amount of violence you consume as entertainment, news, or recreation.  This will require a conscious effort, but you will begin to reap the benefits immediately!
  • Be cognizant of what you (and your kids) are listening to on the radio/iPod.  Just because you “don’t really listen to the lyrics” doesn’t mean your brain is ignoring them… and if they include a lack of human importance, this attitude can easily be mimicked – with or without a conscious decision or awareness on your part.
  • Guns?  Totally your decision.  If you choose “yes”, please make sure everyone in the household is trained in their use — this significantly reduces accidents.  And please be cognizant of whether or not firearms are a good idea given the makeup of your household.  There are definitely situations in which it would be more dangerous to have them, than to not have them (and many of these situations are completely outside of your control).

Now that you’ve got your house in order, let’s kick it up a notch!

  • Better labeling for the food that’s already out there?Many Voices
  • Writing smarter legislation around what can be done to and what’s allowed into our food?
  • Building better community support systems for families coping with mental illnesses?

This is going to take a lot of voices… are you ready?



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