What Drives Someone to Commit Violence and How Can We Help Break the Cycle? A Licensed Clinical Psychologist Weighs In

mental health community

Disclaimer: Some topics relating to mental health and violence are discussed within this article — readers sensitive to those topics, please be advised.

As the country reels from the bombardment of recent gun violence — that has been rapidly normalized, despite public fear, as federal regulations have been decisively cut back — the public is left to extract their own reasoning. In an effort to help make sense of it all, we sat down with Dr. Bethany Cook, a licensed clinical psychologist, to examine the context surrounding the scourge of violence in America — centering on the idea that it isn’t solely a “gun issue or a mental health issue” but the culmination of the two, and evaluating where we fail, as a country, to manage either.

Dr. Bethany Cook

What provokes a person to commit an act of violence like the Highland Park parade shooting?

The root cause that drives a person to violence, says Cook, is not feeling seen, understood or validated. Typically the person has also experienced bullying, abuse and neglect. 

Although perpetrators of mass violence are often also suicidal as well, Cook says there are some differences between those who are suicidal versus those who are homicidal. When one is suicidal, they’ve lost hope that things will change and turn their anger and depression inward. 

On the opposite end, anger is instead turned outward. 

“You have the same emotional emptiness except it’s not at yourself, it’s at everybody else,” Cook says. “It’s at society, the government, specific individuals. You lose hope that society will ever get better or that your life will ever get better. So [the mindset becomes] “Why not make people feel as badly as I feel?”

When Positive Coping Strategies Take a Negative Turn

When someone feels rejected by the majority of society, they often seek solace from those who also operate on the outskirts of society, “people who may not have the best interest of humanity at heart,” says Cook. 

“‘Lone wolf’ is something of a misnomer for right-wing terrorists whose ideas and methods are being explicitly nurtured through online communities,” a recent article in The New Yorker noted. “Such extremists don’t become radicalized solely by perusing the automated algorithmic feeds that the rest of us see on Facebook or YouTube. They seek out forums for those who have similar views, follow charismatic voices, and egg one another on.”

Cook says when someone feels like they aren’t being seen, sometimes the response is to act out in increasingly extreme ways to get noticed, and in some cases they feel so invisible that they can get away with extreme acts — in other words, “Nobody sees me so I can get away with anything.” 

When There’s No One to Recognize a Problem

Because mass shooters and other perpetrators of extreme violence have often retreated to the outskirts of their communities and lack family connections, Cook says the people who might recognize warning signs simply aren’t there.

“They’re not connected — there isn’t a person in their life who is watching them and can recognize signs before they go too far.”

The Pandemic and Ongoing Political Divide Have Made It More Difficult to Connect

“There’s a lot of polarization that’s happened in this country, and the government is further polarizing people,” Cook says. “The divide that people have right now is definitely impacting their desire, or ability, to see past their own front door.”

Cook also says the pandemic has put everyone in survival mode, and when we’re in that state, we’re less likely to be gracious and to think about other people. 

“It’s easy to ignore the things that you don’t want to look at,” she says, “but if you ignore it, it doesn’t go away. It just gets worse.”

How Do We as a Community Better Recognize These Warning Signs and Intercede?

Check in with people who appear to be lonely or struggling. Cook says if you notice someone in your network starting to act differently, ask yourself whether they have a good support network. If they don’t, consider reaching out to see how they’re doing. 

Cook says this can sometimes mean watching for warning signs and reaching beyond one’s comfort zone. Review these Nine Critical Warning Signs for Violence from Sandy Hook Promise.

“Make an effort to connect with people that are more quiet and reserved — who have maybe said some things that are troubling,” Cook says. “The idea of somebody who doesn’t fit into your village means you need to maybe step outside of your comfort zone and talk to them.”

She says we need to reject the idea that different is bad and that checking in with someone and recognizing a potential problem could make things worse. 

“We all have such baggage that people are afraid to even look at other people’s baggage,” says Cook, but says we need to push ourselves to let people know they’re not alone, even when it’s difficult or uncomfortable.

For more information about Dr. Cook and her various projects and platforms, visit her website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or TikTok.

How to Help:

To offer support or donations to the community of Highland Park, please visit our How To Help article or the Highland Park community resource list.

More from Better:

Margaret Smith is a Chicago-based writer and editor with a passion for socio-political storytelling about their community. They are a graduate of Columbia College Chicago.

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