We continue our week-long feature on The Making of Lee Boyd Malvo: The D.C. Sniper with an interview with Jonathan H. Mack, Psy.D. Mack is a forensic psychologist and in the book he identifies and analyzes the underlying clinical psychological and behavioral processes that led to Malvo’s dissociation and turn toward serial violence.
Question: Dr. Mack, what can we learn from the Malvo case and the fact that these types tragic mass murders continue?
Jonathan Mack: I think that one critical point is that there are a large number of mentally disturbed juvenile and young adult individuals, predominately males but also females, whose mental disorders are either unidentified or poorly treated. These tragedies emphasize that mental and psychological disorders are every bit as life-threatening and devastating to our society as medical disorders, and that mental health care needs to have absolutely full parity with medical care . The cost to society is just too great not to implement this.
Q: What are some of the specific steps we as a nation can take to help curtail this epidemic of murders by disturbed people?
JM: Just about every police and public safety officer is required to pass a psychological examination and psychological testing prior to being cleared to carry a gun. I think we as a nation must consider mandatory psychological testing and evaluation prior to clearing any citizen to carry firearms, possibly with a background check that reveals prior mental health treatment and a full medication list. If you scratch the surface of the individuals who commit mass murders you will find that a lot them were on psychiatric medication, and specifically SSRI or SNRI-type antidepressants, at the time of the commission of those crimes. These medications have black box warning labels that these medications may significantly increase the risk of violent behavior (suicidal or homicidal) in young people.
Q: Do you feel that Malvo’s mental illness at the time of the DC shootings should influence his sentencing going forward?
JM: Yes, the Supreme Court recently ruled that it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile offender guilty of homicide to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. I think that at some point, Mr. Malvo should be considered for parole, with concomitant mandatory, detailed forensic psychological evaluation, testing, and treatment recommendations prior to being paroled; and it is in my opinion that he must be required to comply with all treatment recommendations in order to protect the public safety, as a condition of parole.
Q: Why do you think the U.S. has had such a rash of murderers as compared to other countries?
JM: I think it is obvious that the easy access citizens in this country have to weapons goes a long way toward explaining that difference. I think common-sense gun control laws need to prevail and curtail easy access to rapid-fire assault weapons.
Q: What are some steps the mental health profession can take to help curtail the epidemic of violence?
JM: We have a drug culture in the U.S. that says if you don’t feel good or are a little strange, here’s a pill, or often multiple different types of pills. I think we as a mental health profession need to emphasize psychotherapeutic and family counseling interventions, and begin to more carefully consider the consequences of psychiatric medication side effects, as well as psychotropic polypharmacy. Certain classes of medication, such as SSRIs and SNRIs, should be scrutinized for their potential to worsen the propensity to violence, especially in juveniles and young adults. Although Malvo was not on psychiatric medication, he did not have the benefit of any child welfare or psychosocial interventional services that might have prevented him from becoming an abandoned boy, vulnerable to Muhammad. Even Muhammad himself was a Desert Storm vet who likely came back with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, which if it had been identified and treated from a mental health standpoint, might have stopped him from “going to war” against the country in the first place.