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Interview With Dr. Kheriaty: Are Mass Killings the Result of Moral Evil or Mental Illness?

By Matt C. Abbott
October 3rd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The hypothesis of the devil-a personal spiritual being whose will is turned toward evil and who can exercise some sort of influence over man-may give rise to scorn from rationalists. I challenge the skeptics to find a better explanation for Sandy Hook or Aurora. As Baudelaire famously put it, the devil's greatest trick is convincing us that he does not exist.

WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - The following is a brief interview with Aaron Kheriaty, M.D., director of residency training and medical education; associate clinical professor, department of psychiatry; and director of program in medical ethics at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine.

Dr. Kheriaty, a practicing Catholic, is the author of The Catholic Guide to Depression: How the Saints, the Sacraments, and Psychiatry Can Help You Break Its Grip and Find Happiness Again, an excellent and informative book for Catholics who suffer from-or who are close with someone who suffers from-clinical depression. (Click here to order the book directly from the publisher, Sophia Institute Press.)

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There were reports that the Washington Navy Yard shooter, Aaron Alexis, had received treatment for mental health issues, including "hearing voices." The shooters in the Sandy Hook and Aurora, Colorado tragedies also reportedly suffered from some form of mental illness. But can mental illness alone cause someone to commit such a heinous crime? Isn't there also a diabolical influence present in such cases?  

Dr. Kheriaty: Severe mental illness, including various forms of psychotic disorders, can put a person at risk of engaging in behavior that he would never do when thinking more clearly. Treating hospitalized patients on a psychiatric ward, I have often seen agitated or aggressive behavior when the person's symptoms were severe. However, it is a myth that mentally ill individuals, even those suffering from severe psychotic disorders, are violent by nature.

If they do commit violent acts, they are much more likely to inflict harm on themselves than on others. It seems to me that the kinds of atrocious violence on a massive scale that we see in these shooters cannot be fully explained by mental illness alone. I've treated hundreds of people with severe schizophrenia, for example, and when the illness is poorly controlled, they may be liable to quite strange behaviors. But not violence, not evil, on the scale that we see in these tragedies.

Such acts seem to require something beyond just ordinary human frailty, or even typical human malice. I believe that wherever evil on this scale is committed, there must be some kind of diabolical influence present. The way in which this influence plays out is mysterious and varied-from temptation, to oppression, to outright possession. Mental illness alone, in my judgment, cannot account for these behaviors. Something else is involved.

The hypothesis of the devil-a personal spiritual being whose will is turned toward evil and who can exercise some sort of influence over man-may give rise to scorn from rationalists. I challenge the skeptics to find a better explanation for Sandy Hook or Aurora. As Baudelaire famously put it, the devil's greatest trick is convincing us that he does not exist.

What can we do as a society to promote good mental and spiritual health?

Dr. Kheriaty: Strengthen the family, where children can grow up with their mother and father. Welcome children into the world and treat them as ends in themselves, not as means to another end. Turn off the TV and get rid of your video games and pornography.

Give young people hope, and a sense of meaning and purpose, so that they do not turn to drugs in despair. Reject the culture of narcissism and self-aggrandizement promoted in the media, and instead, learn to care for those who are marginalized and forgotten, the poor, the elderly and infirm, and those with mental illness. Go to church as a family on Sunday and pray together as a family during the week. 

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Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic columnist with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, Media and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and an Associate in Applied Science degree in Business Management from Triton College in River Grove, Ill. He has worked in the right-to-life movement and is a published writer focused on Catholic and social issues. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.)

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