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The National Conversation We Need But Haven’t Had Yet
[about violence in society]


There are many things that we need to have a serious national dialogue about but, in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, none are more pressing than violence.

The questions we are all asking ourselves today are these: what is violence; what provokes violence; why do some people become mass murderers; what is the psychology of the violent person; what can society do to prevent it.

The first thought, of course, is to legislate increased gun control so that we can stop these madmen. And to many this is a logical first step. Yet, if we were to try to control everything that kills people we would no longer have a free society. It would be a society stripped of individual liberties. Our individual liberties must be protected at the same time that we find ways to prevent future such massacres.

Besides, many more deaths are caused by people driving recklessly in automobiles on our public roadways, or as a result of errors of judgment in our hospitals, or by sheer accidents. The top fifteen causes of death in the United States (in this order) are as follows: (1) heart disease, (2) cancer, (3) stroke, (4) chronic lung disease, (5) accidents, (6) Alzheimer’s disease, (7) diabetes, (8) influenza and pneumonia, (9) kidney disease, (10) blood poisoning, (11) suicide, (12) liver disease, (13) hypertension, (14) Parkinson’s disease, and (15) homicide.

Note that homicide is last on the list.

The effects of biological aging are by far the leading cause of death. What’s more, there are many preventable causes of death that are directly related to how people live their lives. These include hypertension, tobacco smoking, drug-induced death, firearm injuries, malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases, poor diet, obesity, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption, indoor air pollution, unsafe water, poor sanitation. The list goes on...

Annual causes of death in the United States are available here. Do you know? Homicide rates are actually declining in the U.S.


Still, it is not a particularly safe world we live in and every day could be our last for any number of reasons, self-induced or not. We face inevitable threats whenever we leave the safety of our homes.

The question is, how do we cope with such knowledge?



Let me begin with this observation: there are no ‘random acts of kindness’ and there are no ‘random acts of violence.’ In both cases the randomness is purely in the eyes of the beholder.

The person that performs [an act of kindness] does so with deliberation. They do it because they want to and, typically, the person is not looking for public acclaim or recognition. Their behavior is driven by a strong desire to express benevolence and good will towards others. They select the recipients of their kindnesses based on conclusions they have drawn beforehand about those who may be especially needy at the time.

The person that performs [an act of violence] also does so with deliberation. They do it because they want to and, typically, the person is not looking for public acclaim or recognition. Their behavior is driven by a desire to harm others. They select their unwitting targets based on conclusions they have drawn beforehand about them.

Human behavior is emotionally driven. Observed behavior in any person is a literal snapshot of the person at a given moment in time that speaks to the entire trek through life that the person has taken. But we have to know what we are looking at, not unlike the archeologist who looks at a precisely dug hole in the ground and sees the past when you and I see nothing but a pile of dirt.

It has been said that we ‘die of our whole life’ and I agree with that statement. It means that ultimately we die of the things we consume, the risks we take, the behaviors we engage in, the relationships we have with others, how well we care for ourselves and educate ourselves -- and how all that plays out over the course of a lifetime. We die, in other words, of the choices we make and the associations we keep.

This is as true for violent twenty-somethings (who murder others then kill themselves) as it is for septuagenarians taking their last breath of life from a hospital bed surrounded by loving family members. Some of us die well, others of us die badly, and in both cases the death is reflective of the life that was.

What can this tell us about violent perpetrators?



First, it means that we have to start asking better questions.  

Ballistics, crime forensics and law enforcement cannot be the only focus when investigating the kinds of violent episodes we have witnessed since Columbine. The police have a critical role to play but so does our mental health system, especially the role played by professionals trained in analysis and treatment of the multigenerational family. The primary theoretical domain in this regard is the Bowen Theory of Family Emotional Functioning. I am fortunate to have had Dr. Murray Bowen as a mentor and his wisdom informs how I think to this day.

You should be aware that the dominant systems of psychology and psychiatry are ones that focus exclusively on individual functioning. Some individually trained mental health professionals do see families in their practices but they tend to view these families as a collective of individuals that happen to be related. Family members are used, in this context, merely to gain information about the “identified patient.”

They tend to think in terms in individual motives, 'mental illness', or temperament and personality traits that typically characterize violent people. THESE ARE INTERESTING CONCEPTS BUT THEY ARE FREUDIAN CONCEPTS that are not useful for understanding something so major as mass murder violence or the sheer depth and complexities of families.

We have, in essence, what I call an institutional approach to the delivery of services to the mentally ill. It is a useful approach that standardizes how we see dysfunctional people and it provides a quick way to diagnose and label them. This system speeds up treatment, it provides useful information to the court system, and it allows for some degree of consensus among a broad range of health and police professionals. Even more importantly, perhaps, it has mainstreamed the use of prescription drugs to treat dysfunctional people, for better or worse.

However, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (universally known as the DSM-IV) is not without controversy.

There is a battle going on as we speak to define mental illness and Allen Frances is at the center of it. Frances was the lead editor of the 4th edition of this expansively used manual of mental disorders.  I encourage professionals, especially, to read the very interesting article entitled Inside the Battle to Define Mental Illness by Gary Greenberg. It is eye-opening.

The DSM-IV manual gives psychiatrists and certain other health professionals the authority to diagnose suffering and treat it with drugs. The problem is, and the claim that Frances is now making, is that the psychiatric establishment is making diseases out of everyday suffering when, in reality, there is no credible way to differentiate so-called mental illness from everyday suffering.

In other words, we have a system in place that we rely heavily upon –- but is it really fixing our problems? It has certainly not taught us very much about the true nature of the violent person.

The perspective of family professionals like myself is this: if we want to learn what provokes a person to violence then we have to know everything there is to know about the family relationships of the violent person, and the dominant relationship patterns that have engulfed that person from birth forward. It makes sense, doesn’t it?

This means that whenever violent acts are involved the families of the violent perpetrators also need to be properly analyzed, right along side the perpetrator and at the same moment in time.

Unfortunately this is not being done, although general questions are certainly asked of the families by police and mainstream, individually focused health professionals.

Their questions to the family are primarily about the character of the violent perpetrator and his activities, interests, thoughts, associations outside of the family, and about any mental illness or other medical or learning problems or violent history he may have. Unless they are also considered suspects in the case, family members are universally considered peripheral to the investigative process.

FACT: the criminal mind comes from a family that has aided and abetted the formation of that mind

FACT: loners have something to hide and the families they come from have something to hide

FACT: a child does not kill parent(s) for petty reasons

FACT: nearly every violent mass murderer in recent history has been prescribed anti-depressant drugs for several or more years preceding their violent outburst

FACT: anti-depressant drugs have a long and documented history of triggering suicide and episodes of violent behavior in those taking the drugs

FACT: back in February of 2010 Peter R. Breggin, MD testified before the Veterans Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. The title of his expert testimony: Antidepressant-Induced Suicide, Violence and Mania: Implications for the Military -- [YouTube 26 min.] -- I encourage you to listen to this testimony -- the implications of which extend far beyond the realm of the military.




Are you aware that the shrinking number of mental hospitals are staffed for the most part with foreign-born Freudian-trained doctors whose primary language is not English?

Are you aware that it is extremely difficult today to admit a person to a psychiatric facility because of all the regulations and legalities associated with hospital admission procedures? Even mental health professionals avoid admitting patients because of insurance company policies dogging them to release the patient.

You can imagine, then, how difficult if not impossible it is for a family trying to admit one of its own family members. Not only that, the stigma of mental illness in general and the added stigma of psychiatric hospitalization is a weighty thing to deal with. The stigma alone causes families to conceal their dysfunctional family members or risk, like the Connecticut shooter’s mother did, the wrath of her dysfunctional son when she initiated hospital admissions procedures.

We use the term MENTAL HEALTH to describe services for the mentally ill. However nice and prevention-oriented the term might sound, this institutionalized mental health delivery system is not about prevention services. Mental health services deal with therapeutic treatment modalities –- prescription drug treatment, outpatient psychotherapy, inpatient hospitalization, group therapy, alcoholism and drug treatment, and more -- for already dysfunctional patients.

Insurance policies don’t cover many (if any) prevention services. And anyway, professionals have too much to do trying to mop up the steady stream of dysfunctional behavior in our midst to have the time to seriously think about trying to prevent it. (Some jobs would be lost, too, huh?)

You should know that psychiatric inpatient programs deal exclusively with the mentally ill patient, not their families. Families are rarely, if ever, involved in the treatment process and often they are not even held financially responsible for the family member who has been admitted to the psychiatric hospital. This is not true in all cases but it is mostly true. Social Security Disability covers a majority of long-term psychiatric inpatient hospitalizations.

Even though the patient need for psychiatric hospitalization is now far greater than the supply of available treatment facilities, we don’t collectively talk about the mentally ill; we feel anxious around the mentally ill; we put as many of these individuals as we can behind closed doors; and we really don’t give them much thought until some horrific event forces us to think about them again. More and more we don't even want to establish viable treatment programs for them.



The term mental illness assumes that the person so labeled lives in an emotional vacuum, which is patently ridiculous.

All violent perpetrators were born into a family and lived as a member of that family for a number of years, often for as many as 18 years or more. Within that extended family structure there were parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, stepparents, half-siblings, cousins, you name it. Each and every one of those family members had an emotional impact on the perpetrator, as did the culture that surrounded the family.

But because a family is more than the mere sum of its parts, emotional and anxiety-driven pathways have a way of fusing generations together to form what Dr. Bowen refers to as “an undifferentiated amorphous mass.” In a healthy family system individuals can relate to each other without such self-defeating fusion. This is in contrast to a dysfunctional family system where relationships become blurred, generational boundaries become confused, anxiety escalates precipitously between family members, and rage builds then eventually erupts. These kinds of families have an emotional lid that keeps the world out. The only way today we can really find out what is going on in such entrenched family systems is to enforce regular scrutiny by outside child-care agencies, schools, medical facilities and the like where family members happen to have some connection. We need to refocus on PREVENTIVE HEALTH SERVICES including both physical and mental health.

In dysfunctional families couples marry and divorce, sometimes multiple times; they make babies in and out of wedlock; they fight; they physically abuse each other; they scream in rage at each other; they triangulate children into marital conflicts; they suffocate children with over-focus; they force themselves sexually on children or others; they emotionally cutoff from one another; they lie and cheat on each other – the list of abuses within families is endless, not to mention any additional stresses of poverty or drug and alcohol addiction or chronic unemployment, or even medical impairment.

Imagine a child growing up in any one of these circumstances. They are emotionally scarred from that tumultuous experience and they bring these scars with them into adulthood in the form of extremely dysfunctional attitudes and behavior.

Contrast this to a child born into an intact, nurturing family. The family surrounds them with a sense of community and a sense of belonging. They celebrate the child’s growth and development and all small steps towards future emancipation. In healthy families their members tend to remain in nurturing emotional contact throughout their lives.

So the two children described above may look similar on the outside but they are nothing at all alike on the inside.



A critical period in the evolution of a family is the point at which a child leaves home. It is at this juncture that parents benignly let go as the young adult takes tentative steps into the world to form their own differentiated life style and relationships -- on their own nickle.

This is, however, a two-way process.  

In dysfunctional families it is typically a time of grave upheaval. The leaving home process is wrenching as the over-close parent/child relationship begins to dissolve and the child exhibits reactive symptoms of a pending cutoff.  

NOTE: the more dysfunctional the overall family history has been, the more impaired the leaving home child. Families can and do literally self-destruct at this juncture.


The 20-year old mass murderer in fatigues and armored vest with a thousand clips of ammunition in his pocket is an example of a child engulfed in a profound leaving home crisis.



The common denominator of all patterns in nature is that they repeat. A pattern is a repeating regularity of form or movement that consistently arises under consistent circumstances.

The natural world is filled with patterns. Patterns surround us: ocean waves, spirals, wind, dunes, coastlines, river networks, crystals, blood vessel branching, bubbles, even fractals to name but a few examples. Both living and non-living things possess striking symmetries not unlike the snowflake whose structure forms a record of the varying conditions that were present during its formation (called crystallization).

The Bowen Theory shows us that highly anxious human behavior has a definite symmetry about it, too. This symmetry serves as a record of the varying emotional conditions present over generations of family functioning.

Families in crisis are highly anxious. As the crisis state becomes more and more entrenched the family anxiety further escalates. There is a point at which the anxiety becomes so oppressive that both the thinking and behavior of family members becomes impaired. Relationships become impaired and form entrenched patterns over time.

These relationship patterns eventually spill over into the next generation where the patterns tend to repeat. Children of alcoholics tend to become alcoholics themselves, or they marry an alcoholic. Abused children grow up and tend to abuse their own children. Suffocating, over-focusing mothers produce children who tend to grow up to suffocate their own children. Divorce gets passed on down the generations as an emotional copying strategy. Obese parents tend to produce obese children.



The politician’s response to violence is always GUN CONTROL and sovereign U.S. states can choose to limit the sale of assault weapons as a class of weapons, but there are tricky Constitutional questions associated with it.

The fact is, every day dysfunctional people buy guns because the screening process itself is woefully inadequate, as are the screeners. These same dysfunctional individuals drive cars that become deadly weapons on our roadways and they abuse their children and spouses with their hands and knives and other weapons including genitalia, all of which can be equally deadly.

Where are the impassioned calls to control the sale of automobiles and the sale of knives or sex? Where are the calls to control Hollywood’s propensity for producing violent films? We have long talked about violent television programming but has anything ever come of it? Even video games and comic books are violent today but no one seriously thinks of controlling these things.

Guns become the focus because it’s a relatively easy solution. We like easy solutions, just as the mental health establishment likes the quick and easy diagnostic tools found in their Manual of Mental Illness.


Question: what will it take for society to learn how to properly assess violent families?

Question: what will it take to get mainstream health professionals to stop practicing a myopic treatment modality that no longer reflects the relational complexities that surround us today?


We live with a system of federal laws that are intended to protect us but in the end they often fail to do so. These well-intended laws have legions of unintended consequences attached to them, primarily because lawmakers cannot imagine all possible iterations of the problem they are trying to guard against.

More laws and more regulations are not the answer.

We cannot prevent emergencies from happening. We can only hope to be prepared with adequate training and the knowledge needed to cope with the emergencies as they arise.

In that sense we cannot prevent violence, either. Certainly not with the dearth of information that is currently available to the general public about violence and its familial origins. The public abhors violence yet at the same time it is grossly ignorant of it, and it even mindlessly aids and abets it.

Have you noticed? Neighbors don’t know each other any more. Gone are the inviting and expansive front porches and neighborhood sidewalks in residential communities. Gone are the small shops serving these local neighborhoods. Many even buy their food today in bulk from foreign countries, not from local farmer cooperatives.  

Whatever happened to the notion “Think globally, act locally”?

The communities of old embraced us. Neighborhoods today isolate us. It is no wonder that crime and violence flourish.



Once a violent episode occurs the major news organizations barrage us with endless forensic details about the violence -- about what guns were used, what bullets, when it happened, who was harmed or killed, who did what where. And all of this information comes to us within hours, sometimes even within minutes of the horrific event.

But this brand of news coverage is largely voyeuristic. It goes too far. In most cases it also gives the violent perpetrator his ‘five minutes of fame’ whether he was looking for it or not.

I often find myself bemoaning the missed opportunities by the media for solid public education programming in the wake of devastating emergencies.

The myopic coverage of emergencies produces copycats but it does little to educate us about how such a dastardly event could happen in the first place, or what might have been done to prevent it. Even in medicine (including mental health) we think minimally about the prevention of illness, only of its cure or treatment.

It's high time we fixed that.



Many of my peers and I were classically educated in the 50’s and 60’s. We learned several foreign languages in school, we studied the arts, and we learned not only to appreciate music but also to make music. We traveled to learn. And we had teachers who taught us how to think without telling us what to think. We explored subjects instead of merely memorizing tidbits of information for tests.

I don’t see much of the classical stuff going on any more. The focus instead is on memorization and regurgitation, on professorial opinion making, on teachers salaries and unions, and on benefits. I know there are still some inherently great teachers but the educational milieu today is not as conducive as it once was for introspection and philosophical inquiry on the part of students.

Who cares that the history books have been whitewashed of certain facts to please regional school boards? Who cares that government has slowly been taking over our schools for decades, quietly inserting this fact and removing that fact for the purpose of propagandizing our children?

Even something like homeschooling has its risks. When taken on by families that are emotionally healthy and intellectually inquisitive, where parents have definable skills to properly educate, students can reap great rewards. But homeschooling can also be limiting and socially isolating, particularly when it serves to protect children from learning things about the world that homeschooling parents don’t want their children to learn.

Censorship is ugly under any circumstances but it is to be guarded against when the thing being shielded from public scrutiny is a dysfunctional family that is harming children.



First and foremost, we need to know what is going on in families.

This means that some system needs to be put in place that accurately tracks the whereabouts and circumstances of all minor children. We cannot let dysfunctional families continue to churn out dysfunctional young people who turn to violence to vent their rage. Families must be monitored by the same governments that are given the responsibility for educating their children.

We need to learn how to spot dysfunctional behaviors in minor children and their families before it is too late to do anything about it.

We need parents to exert absolute control over what their minor children are reading, watching on television and seeing at the movies that may be violence oriented. This includes all manner of video games and even comic books.

We need to learn how to effectively manage anxiety, not only in our children but in ourselves. Anxiety is at the root of all emotional and familial dysfunction.

We urgently need to have a national conversation about prescription drug usage. We are creating a veritable drug culture in this country and worldwide that will eventually be our undoing. At the same time we need to banish all prescription drug advertisements from television and elsewhere and relegate them to physicians’ offices where they belong. There is a drug for every possible malady today. This just creates ever-new treatment fads that require ever new and costlier designer drugs for them.

Do you know that bipolar diagnoses among young children have increased 40-fold in recent years? They are being prescribed antipsychotic drugs that have unknown and untold ill-effects on a child’s developing brain, not to mention the obesity-inducing propensity of many of these drugs.

We need to find better ways to protect ourselves from the bottom feeders in our society.

We need to reduce the size of our social systems. Big government breeds engorged social systems. As our social systems become ever more bloated increasing numbers of fragile people drop out of sight.

The time has come to reconsider the socially irresponsible effects of excessive growth and predatory government expansion. It is not working.

Finally, we must cultivate a renewed sense of self-control in our lives -- in our families, our peer groups, our jobs, and in our marriages. We are collectively expending too much energy relying on others for things that we rightly should be able to do for ourselves.

We can no longer afford to wait for those Knights in Shining Armor to rescue us from ourselves.



Physicians today are glorified pill-pushers. A frightening new book to read in this regard is Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients by UK's Ben Goldacre.

We also suffer from too many specialists and too few generalists. Specialties in medicine cause doctors to focus too much on parts without ever really seeing (or understanding) the whole person.

Hospitals are becoming downright dangerous places, as are many nursing homes.

Physicians routinely disavow popular and effective alternative treatment modalities such as those offered by chiropractors and acupuncturists, as well as herbalists and others in the emerging natural health domains. gives you a sense of the breathe of those domains.

Yes, medicine has become just another big business as the relationships between “Big Pharma” and physicians and the medical research community morph into the same kind of amorphous mass that characterizes dysfunctional families. It is one and the same.

We can do better, much better.




(01) Psychiatric Drug Facts with Dr. Peter Breggin - his comprehensive web site

(02) Turning Children info Medicated Zombies - Peter Breggin, MD talks to Lew Rockwell about the Big Pharma-public school scheme [audio MP3]

(03) Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption by Marcia Angell -- [from The New York Review of Books]

(04) Dr. Sanjay Gupta on Antidepressants and Shooters -- [YouTube]

(05) Read the FULL REPORT of the VIRGINIA TECH Review Panel in the aftermath of the April 16, 2007 shooting there when a disturbed student took the lives of 32 students and faculty in addition to wounding many others, and then killing himself.

(06) BOOK: Talking Back to Prozac by Peter Breggin, MD and Ginger Breggin -- Authors Peter Breggin MD and Ginger Breggin have re-released their seminal book with a new introduction and new information about the SSRI antidepressants, including the granddaddy of them all—Prozac. This is the Breggin book that blew the whistle on the skewed science of the “new” antidepressants, including Paxil, Prozac, Luvox, Zoloft, Celexa, Lexapro, Effexor, Cymbalta and Wellbutrin.

(07) Prozacked Nation -- January 26, 2013 PODCAST [20 min] -- Lew Rockwell interviews Peter Breggin, MD about violence, suicide and other effects of brain-wrecking psychiatric drugs (click on the audio MP3 icon)


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