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Forensic psychologist, Dr. Helen Smith, on the shooting in the Amish school today.

Monday, October 2, 2006

HH: Joined now by Helen Smith. Dr. Helen Smith is a forensic psychologist in Knoxville, Tennessee. She is also a blogger at I’ll link it at, spouse of the Instapundit, Professor Glenn Reynolds, professor of law at the University of Tennessee. Dr. Smith, good to chat with you again.

HS: Hi, Hugh. How are you?

HH: I’m great. Now today, I didn’t know until hours ago that you had sort of a specialty in killers of children, and what motivates them. How did you get in…

HS: I deal mainly with kids, but I also see adults, particularly men.

HH: And how did you get into that field?

HS: Well, I actually had…I’ve always been interested in why people would harm a kid, but I actually got into it because I had one of my patients, about ten years ago, who I evaluated, and I saw that through my evaluation, that I felt like he was going to kill someone, but he didn’t name a person. And as a psychologist, I couldn’t call the police or anything, because he didn’t give me the name of a specific person. But he went out a couple of weeks later and murdered a man. And I thought about it at that point, and said oh, my gosh. You know, what can we do as a society? What can I do as a psychologist to understand this phenomenon, and I went on to write a book called The Scarred Heart, which is dealing mainly with kids who kill, but it deals a little bit with the adults. And I also did a film looking at the mass murder, of a group of teenagers that murdered a family. So I…and I’ve dealt with a lot of patients who have suicidal and homicidal tendencies.

HH: So when you saw this story today, this is such a horrific story, the murder, the execution of little girls, little Amish girls. It’s almost beyond comprehension. What do you first think about, Dr. Helen Smith?

HS: Well, I first think about male suicide, and it’s a topic that nobody wants to touch. Whenever I’ve been on shows, or tried to talk to TV stations, that kind of thing, it’s something that people don’t want to talk about. We have to realize in this country that the male suicide rate is growing at a substantial pace. There are 50% more suicides now than there were in 1950 with men. 75-80% of all suicides are now committed by men. And I think we have to look at that, and we have to say you know, how is that playing into what we’re seeing now? And what’s happening is men are deciding to take their lives, and they’re not going alone anymore. They’re taking people down with them.

HH: And so, today’s 32 year old who goes in, why would they pick little girls in an Amish schoolhouse to go down with him?

HS: My guess is that we don’t know what’s happened. He said this was a revenge killing. For all we know, 20 years ago, a woman abused him. I don’t know. Or something happened to him that made him…or, my guess would be…now I haven’t evaluated him, of course, but my guess would be that something happened to him, and gave him some perception that maybe some woman somewhere, or some female figure somewhere harmed him. Obviously, there’s just a lot of hatred towards girls and women, and we saw that with the Bailey, Colorado, situation, too, where a killer came in, and he specifically picked out girls. And I think we have to really look at that and say you know, what’s this about? Why are men picking out these women? And I think that’s a question we need to start researching.

HH: Do you have any theories on what could trigger such hatred, especially of young girls?

HS: You know, I don’t know. The only thing I can think of is in this latest case today, would be that something happened to this man, something, a female, you know, a maternal figure, or somebody hurt him along the way, and that he’s always held some type of grudge. You don’t go and kill women. Usually, people, they kill people that they’re angriest at. And these girls, I assume, probably stand for some representation of some female in his past that’s hurt him. Now it may be completely illogical. Why would he pick these innocent girls who never did anything? But you’ve got to realize that a killer’s mind, they don’t think like us. And a person who gets to the point of suicide, their thinking is completely…it’s rational to them. In their mind, they’re thinking okay, I’m going to die. And I think in a world today, with everything that’s going on in cable news, everything we see all the time, you know, why go alone? People figure, okay, I’m going to kill myself, but for what? I’m going to let the whole world know how angry I am, because I think people now, they really…there’s a lot of anger in the world, and I think people don’t…they feel like nobody listens to them. And the more nobody listens, the more they feel like why not take somebody else down, and let the whole world know how mad I am.

HH: Now this, of course, is not a new phenomenon. But do you sense it’s accelerating? I pointed out that on September 15th, the gunman in Montreal killed one and wounded nineteen before killing himself. The month before that, August 30th, the driver in San Francisco ran down 14 victims, killed one. A shooter killed one and six others were wounded at the Jewish community center in Seattle. That was terrorism related. And then all of the event of the last six…Is this just a normal sequence that I happen to have noticed? Or is it accelerating, Dr. Helen Smith?

HS: Well, I don’t know that it’s accelerating. I mean, we haven’t had that many particular school shootings. I mean, they’re definitely not accelerating. I think that what you see, though, there is a slight rise in mass murders. There’s about a one percent rise, which looks huge. And I also think that what we’ve done is, now with cable TV, it’s splashed all over the news within minutes, or hours. And so it looks like there’s a lot more than there is. But there is a slight rise in mass shootings, that is somebody, two to three people being killed in one mass killing. So that is slightly on the rise. Now the reason for that, I mean, there’s all kinds of different theories. I think one of them is we don’t address mental health in this country. We’ve deinstitutionalized the mental health system, and there’s nowhere for people to go who are sick. You’ve got to remember, people like this have, usually, not always, typically have a mental disorder. A man who goes in a school and shoots kids like this typically will have what we call a personality disorder. Their thinking is skewed. It’s unusual. They’re suicidal, their thinking is very highly unusual. And they’re very paranoid. Usually, there’s a triggering event. Something usually happens to them before the event…it might be a relationship break up, it might be unemployment. We don’t know in this man’s case what brought this up today, but usually, there’s something called a triggering event, something that makes them decide this is the day I’m going to do it, and they’ve been thinking about it for a long time. Nobody just snaps one day. These people have been thinking about it and planning, and thinking this is what I’m going to do.

HH: Dr. Helen Smith, what are the warning signs of the suicidal personality that also might go and decide to take a number of people with them on their death journey?

HS: Well, somebody acting really paranoid, somebody who always talks about how everybody’s out to get them. Now we all do that, but I think it’s an extreme measure, an intense…we can either see two things. Number one is a large amount of anger, a very great deal of hostility, talking threats and things like that. But on the other side of it is under controlled hostility, that is people who don’t say anything. You know, you’ll hear about oh, the kid was so quiet, he never said a word, and then he shot up this school. And so you have to kind of watch those things. You have to kind of watch and see how does someone respond. For example, kids, like for example, the kid that shot up a school the other day and shot his principal. One of the things he had was he felt like he’d been bullied and harassed, and I think it’s really important for schools to really look into that, and know that if a kid brings a problem like that to them, it’s important to address it. But I think we’ve also, somebody who’s very narcissistic, that is, they think they’re entitled to special rights…other people don’t have rights, and they talk about getting back at others, revenge towards others. One of the things we think about, we always think well, usually, someone will talk about killing someone before they do it. It’s not true. Often, for example, we heard about this wife today with the man at the Amish school. I don’t think the wife said she didn’t know anything about it. So sometimes, when somebody broods a lot, they’re up in their room a lot, they’re quiet, they’re withdrawn, they might be using substances, and they seem a little bit not themselves, you might want to try to talk to a person like that. You might want to try to get them to a psychologist or a psychiatrist, somebody who can evaluate their mental state before they go over the edge like this.

HH: Dr. Helen Smith, in your practice…I’m unaware of the ethical obligations. You referred to them at the beginning, when you were afraid someone’s going to do violence, either to themselves or others or both. What are they?

HS: Well, there’s a law called the Tarasoff Law, and it’s…many states have a law where psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health workers, if somebody tells me, they have to give me a person or persons that they’re going to harm. Now if a person has a generalized threat, oh, I’d like to kill anybody, we don’t report that, and that’s what I had in the case of the kid I had who was 17. But if somebody gives me an identifiable victim, by law, we have to warn that person, we have to contact the police, or sometimes, both, depending on the state, the laws in your state.

HH: Now how many suicides are occurring in the United States among men?

HS: Oh, my goodness. Okay, there are roughly 30,000 suicides in the United States, and about 80% of those, 24,000, are committed by men. And a large number of them…

HH: What? 30,000 a year?

HS: Yes.

HH: And of those, 24,000 are by men, and 6,000 are by women?

HS: It’s somewhere around that. Now you have to realize, more women attempt suicide, but they don’t succeed. Generally, men succeed, because they typically use more lethal means. They might use a gun, a woman might take a bunch of pills.

HH: What age are we talking about, this peaking at?

HS: There are two different ages that the male suicide peaks at. It’s young ages, men between 15-24, and older ages, of the elderly, believe it or not, men usually over 65. And that’s been a big problem in this country that nobody addresses, is that many men over 65 kill themselves, probably because of illness or other things.

HH: And at what point do the numbers…what’s the number of people who take someone with them?

HS: Oh, it’s very low. We have…I don’t know off the top of my head how many mass shootings, or killings, actually, there are in the United States. But it’s a small fraction of that. This isn’t something…I mean, you don’t want to think that mass killings happen very often. They don’t.

– – – –

HH: Dr. Smith, whenever there’s a train derailment, an airplane crash, the NTSB dispatches a team of experts to diagnose, with the idea of compiling a database from which to work and categorize and improve. Does a similar thing happen when there’s an incident like today’s horrific slaughter of the Amish girls?

HS: Yes. There has been a tremendous amount of research on the school shooters. And in fact, if you go to the world wide web, you can pull up…there’s a New York Times, there was a really great New York Times article on rampage killers, that’s what we call killers who go off on a kind of a shooting spree, and they compiled a bunch of data. There is…the government conducts information. There’s been numerous studies. There’s a great forensic psychologist, J. Reid Meloy, who writes in this area, looking at mass shooters. He has a book called Violent Risk and Threat Assessment. You can find it on But there’s numerous books and numerous studies in this area, particularly since 1999, after Columbine.

HH: Now one of my very smart regular e-mailer correspondents asked me to get your reaction to something he calls the FEEB long term study, that says the targeting of pre-pubescent girls typically is almost archetypically sexual homicide. Do you agree with that?

HS: I think people want to just look at this, and say this is sexual homicide. But I think what you really have to look at is why are these men killing. Sexual assault and homicide is more an act of power, not one of sex. I don’t really know that it has a whole lot to do with sex, as much as it has to do with feeling in some sense powerless, and at the same time, feeling powerful. I think one of the things we have to look at is what is the symbol these men are using? They’re using our little girls, these pre-pubescent girls, sort of the symbol of, you know, almost like, I hate to say it, but like the blonde, Natalee Holloway. I think in one of these killings, they…the blonde, blue-eyed girl is god, and that’s sort of the symbol of American society. And I think that might be what these men are reacting to. What they’re saying is screw American society. I’m going to act out against it. And what is the biggest symbol of our American society? It’s pretty, blonde girls.

HH: Wow. Let me ask you a couple of other e-mail…a lot of people are saying Hugh, it’s anti-depressants. It’s anti-depressants. Prozac, etc. Your reaction, Dr. Helen Smith?

HS: Okay, one of the biggest things they found in the New York Times study on rampage killers is that the biggest…one of the things they found is when these mass killers kill, they were off their anti-depressants. They quit taking it. So I am a big believe in medication when you need it. Now a lot of people think these anti-depressants cause people to become homicidal. There have been massive studies done. And at this point, the research is questionable, but it’s not so. And what I’ve found in my practice is that my patients who go off their medications, and some of these people, you’ve got to remember, who have serious mental disorders, when they stop taking their medication, that’s when the violence begins. I’ve actually had people come after me. I mean, I hate to say, but I mean, in my practice, I’ve actually had people who go off their medication, and I know that’s the time when I’m in trouble, and everybody around the person’s in trouble.

HH: Let me ask you then about the next one, which is that we live in a world of violent video games, slasher films, and increasingly disturbing, available at a moment images on the web, including a lot of bizarre sexuality. Does this hasten the unbalancing of the already precariously balanced, Dr. Helen Smith?

HS: That’s a hard question. I’m not a big proponent of, like, video games cause violence. For example, in 1993, I believe, was it Quake or Doom, or one of those games. All those games started coming out. And that’s actually when the homicide rate started to plummet. So I don’t know. There’s research looking at it both ways. I don’t think that people watch video games and then go out and kill. I think that people who have disturbed minds already, maybe could be sent over the edge by video games in a sense…not video games, but maybe pictures and that kind of thing. One thing we do find is that I think when sex is mixed with violence, that can have an effect on a very unstable mind.

HH: Can you expand on what that means?

HS: When you…I think when people…there are movies and things where sex is mixed with the message that being violent when you’re being sexual, I think that when people…there are some people who see that, and I think it can encourage them towards violence. But I don’t think it’s the cause. And I want to point out, everybody wants to think there’s one root cause. Oh, it’s the video games. Oh, it’s the movies. It’s one thing…it’s not. There’s a complexity in our society that you’ve got to remember, here’s a person with an unstable mind to begin with, probably a mental disorder. They’re paranoid, they’ve got, really, some stuff going on in their life that’s really hard for them to deal with, they’ve got triggering events that push them over the edge. We have a society that tells us to do whatever you want, when you want. I really think, in the studies I did of kids who were violent, I found that it was actually narcissism, high but unstable self esteem that caused a lot of people to become aggressive.

HH: Now, 24,000 suicides, though, in a year. Of course, we’re a nation of 300 million, as of this month. Was there anything approaching that percentage, or that rate, in agrarian America, prior to 1890?

HS: You know, people have always killed themselves. And what’s interesting is in China, there are more women and girls who kill themselves, and in our society, it’s more men. Before 1800, I mean, people always have killed themselves, but I think that we have seen it, especially since 1950 with men, in this country, it’s increasing. And one of the things I want to point out is we don’t really give a damn about men and boys in this country, and the schools really have very little…I mean, we focus so much on the mental health of girls and women, and we’ve neglected a lot of the boys and men in this country. You go into a school, and a lot of times, the boys’ psychological and mental health is sort of neglected. And sure, it’s great that girls have done so well, and really come far. But I think that we’re really neglecting the mental health of boys and young men in this country, and I think when you do that, men who are vulnerable like this…and I’m not saying it’s a cause, because nobody has the right to go and kill. There’s no excuse for that. But it certainly can, without any type of treatment, without any type of intervention, I think people just assume that men and boys are strong, and they leave them alone. But I think that we have to understand that men and boys are susceptible to mental health issues. And I’d say that’s one of the biggest ones. And the other one would be that feeding people that you can do anything that you want to do in our society, in other words, there’s this sense of entitlement in our society, you can get away with anything. It seems like victims…if you’re a perpetrator in our society, that’s really not such a bad thing. I mean, people actually look at all the murders, and people look at them, and they say oh, well, they glorify that. They glorify somebody who has done something so hideous.

HH: Well, fascinating. I’ve got one last question. I don’t want you to get away without my asking it, Dr. Helen Smith.

HS: Okay.

HH: Can people be helped? I mean, if someone’s listening to this right now, and they’re talking to themselves, and they’re depressed, and they’re isolated, can you or your colleagues help them?

HS: I truly believe that we can. People have told me no, that’s not the case, but I have personally worked…I’ve evaluated over 5,000 people, and I’ve seen kids, and I’ve seen adults that I’ve personally worked with. And I have to say that nobody that I’ve ever treated has ever gone on to commit murder. Maybe evaluated, sure, but I truly believe that if people get the help they need…remember, it only takes one little aspect of change. For example, if I get a patient, and there’s one aspect, for example, you can bring that person’s depression down somewhat, you can help them, we can restructure the way that they think about things. In other words, is killing yourself really the answer? Is going out and hurting other people…I think there are some people that are beyond help, and those are called psychopaths. And 1% of the population has psychopathic traits that are at this point beyond help. But I really think that for the other people, maybe like this man who killed today, who was depressed, suicidal, probably had a mental disorder, I think that we can do some good.

HH: Dr. Helen Smith, thanks for a fascinating half hour. I appreciate it. Her website is linked at

End of interview.

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