The Psychotic Assassin

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

A delusional young loner becomes obsessed with a blonde woman. Disgusted with politicians and the government, he writes rambling rants difficult to understand. He hides the truth about his life from his family. He isolates from friends, buys a gun, attempts to assassinate a politician.
While this sounds like the story of accused Arizona mass murderer Jared Lee Loughner, it’s actually a synopsis of the iconic 1976 film Taxi Driver, starring Robert de Niro and Jodie Foster. Robert de Niro plays Travis Bickle, a psychotic cab driver in New York City. His attempt to assassinate a politician is thwarted. Through a series of random events, he changes his hostile focus from the politician to the pimp of a child prostitute, played by Foster. He commits mass murder.

The film made news again in 1981 when John Hinkley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Hinkley’s psychotic obsession with Jodie Foster’s performance in the film reportedly inspired his attack on the President. Schizophrenic individuals, like the rest of us, are influenced by environment, media, family and random events. They don’t just interpret those events rationally. For example, years ago, the supermarket chain Alpha Beta had a television slogan, “Tell a friend,” to persuade people to shop there. A colleague of mine shared a story about a paranoid schizophrenic who, when told he would be going on a field trip from the hospital to a supermarket, said, “I won’t go to Alpha Beta. They want you to ‘tell a friend.’ I don’t want anyone to know where I shop.”

According to news reports, Jared Lee Loughner engaged in bizarre, hostile behavior last year at Pima Community College. He later withdrew from the college after campus officials told him he needed a mental health evaluation and clearance before they would allow him to return. He then legally purchased a Glock 9 millimeter semi-automatic weapon and, months later, shot 20 people.

From the evidence reported in the news to date, and from Jared Loughner’s disjointed YouTube videos, it appears he suffered from a psychotic disorder. Psychosis consists of a break with reality. The individual’s thoughts don’t connect with a logical thread. Sometimes they speak in a word salad, as if their thoughts were put into a bowl and randomly tossed. Loughner likely suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is an incurable mental illness, with genetic links, associated with significant destruction of brain tissue over time. Symptoms of the disease include hallucinations (sensing things that are not real) and delusions (false beliefs). The disease usually begins in late adolescence and early adulthood.

It appears Lougner’s troubles began in his junior year of high school. That’s when he broke up with his girlfriend, dropped out of high school, and slowly began to deteriorate. He allegedly abused drugs and alcohol, developed an interest in guns, and suffered from paranoid delusions. These delusions included the belief in mind control and in secret government conspiracies. Some schizophrenics, plagued by delusions of grandeur, believe they possess special powers or special importance.
Schizophrenics can unnerve us. In addition to the fear of death, most humans instinctively fear madness. The insane person doesn’t respond to normal social cues, verbal persuasion or even common-sense safety. We feel helpless and confused about how to deal with their bizarre behavior. However, most mentally ill people never commit acts of aggression. The rate of violent acts for the mentally ill closely matches that of the general population.

Researchers found common characteristics in those mentally ill people at high risk for violence:
  • Usually males under the age of 43
  • Substance abusers
  • Bipolar or depressed combined with substance abuse
  • Income below $20,000 per year
  • History of family violence, criminal activity, or juvenile detention
  • Victimized, divorced, separated or unemployed in the past year
We can see this list of characteristics and wonder why someone could not stop this attack. To prevent other similar attacks by the mentally ill, we need to support:
Families with a mentally ill loved one often live for decades with a chronic anxiety: “Will he commit suicide?” “How long can she stay in the hospital?” “What programs can help him stay on his medication?” “Will the insurance approve this new medication?” The list of worries and dilemmas goes on and on. In addition to this tsunami of worries, mental illness carries with it a stigma of shame and blame. Some families try to hide the illness, growing more isolated even when they desperately need the help of the community. Many bloggers and pundits blame Lougner’s family, deepening their devastating pain.

With education, community and mental health support, many psychotic individuals can lead more productive lives. Some can hold jobs and become self-supporting. Others will need care and support for the rest of their lives. Mental illness is not an individual problem. Mental illness poses a problem for families, communities, nations and international relations. Public figures bear a greater responsibility for the power and influence they wield. In the interest of good judgment, I suggest posing the editorial question, “How would a paranoid schizophrenic gun nut view this ad or speech?” Or ask, WWTBD? (What would Travis Bickle do?)

This post originally appeared at Women in Crime Ink on January 14, 2011.