North Texas psychologist: ‘Not all mass shooters have mental health issues'

After the recent mass shooting in Odessa, there is pushback against the automatic labeling of a mass shooting as a mental health problem.

Authorities say Seth Ator on Saturday used a rifle to kill seven people and wound 22 others.

Investigators are still searching for a motive for the shooting and how Ator’s mental state affected his judgment.

A North Texas psychologist on the newly appointed Texas Safety Commission says the reasons are many that bring a man to look for places to kill innocent people. She says to paint all mass shooters as in some way mentally ill does an injustice to people battling mental health issues.

The Odessa mass shooting is the most recent among the 12 deadliest since October 2017. It is the fourth mass shooting in Texas in that two-year period.

In the aftermath of mass shootings, we often hear the shooter was mentally deranged.

“Clearly, mental illness is a consideration with any of these shooters,” said Dr. Susan Fletcher, a North Texas psychologist on the Texas Safety Commission. “But we have to look at a lot of other variables, too.”

The Texas Safety Commission that Dr. Fletcher is a part of was created by Governor Greg Abbott after the El Paso Walmart shooting to search for solutions. Dr. Fletcher cautions there is a danger in equating mass shooters with mental illness alone.

“Because not everybody who has been diagnosed or being treated for symptoms of a mental illness is going on to be violent,” she said. “So we have to be careful because there’s a real stigma to that.”

It’s still not clear with the Odessa case whether the shooter had a diagnosed condition, but the FBI described his mental deterioration as a long-running issue even before he was fired from work on Saturday morning.

“He was on a long spiral of going down,” said FBI special agent Christopher Combs. “He didn’t wake up Saturday morning and walk into his company and then it happened. He went to that company in trouble.”

While it's clear Ator was in some way disturbed, in other recent shootings — from the president to local police — we hear mental illness as the root cause.

“I think that the public — all of us — we want to believe that there must be something wrong with somebody mentally if they’re going to do something like that. So our instinct is it has to be a mental illness,” Dr. Fletcher said. “It would be a mistake to think it’s only about access to weapons. It’s only about background checks. It’s only about mental illness. It’s about racism. It’s about hate. It’s about loners. These are people that we see that are doing this that are loners. They're not part of a larger group. They're on social media. Some of that is being tracked, but we have to figure out how to integrate all of the information. And that’s one of the things that the commission is doing.”

Dr. Fletcher says threat assessments of strange behavior are critical in identifying who might carry out this type of carnage. She says the Texas Safety Commission will continue to work to find some solutions.