Did this tragedy have to happen?

February 22, 2008

Nicole Colson examines the media reaction to the shootings at Northern Illinois University.

"WHY?" WAS the question asked again and again last week in the wake of a deadly shooting at Northern Illinois University (NIU) that left six people, including the gunman, dead and another 16 wounded.

Why would 27-year-old University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign graduate student Steven Kazmierczak return to his former university with four weapons and open fire on students in a geology class?

Kazmierczak was, by all accounts, a good student, well-liked and respected by teachers and classmates. He was studying to be a social worker, described himself as "committed to social justice" and spoke of becoming an advocate for prisoners' rights. It was only as the days passed that Kazmierczak's history of mental illness and a series of personal problems were revealed.

But the question "why" obscures a more troubling and important question: Could something have been done to prevent the tragedy?

It's not hard to understand how Steven Kazmierczak could end up feeling alone and desperate. He grew up in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village and reportedly faced mental illness since his teenage years.

High school friend Peter Rachowsky told the Chicago Sun-Times that during their junior year of high school, Kazmierczak began exploring Satanism and white-power movements, leading his parents to take him to specialists, who put him on psychiatric drugs. "He started to identify more with hatred-type stuff," Rachowsky recalled. "It seemed like the medicine made the whole situation worse."

Following high school, Kazmierczak spent more than a year in the Thresholds-Mary Hill House, a group home for the mentally ill. Kazmierczak reportedly engaged in self-mutilation and refused to take his medications while at the home.

In September 2001, he joined the Army--but in February 2002, before he could complete basic training, he was discharged, reportedly for psychological reasons. Adding to the pressure, Kazmierczak's mother was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease--a debilitating neurological condition--and died two years ago.

Last fall, Kazmierczak dropped his full-time student status at the University of Illinois to take a job as a guard at the Rockville Correctional Facility, a women's prison in Indiana. He reportedly stayed at the job two weeks before abruptly quitting with no explanation.

In recent weeks, Kazmierczak's live-in girlfriend had reportedly left him after a rocky relationship, and friends say he began to act erratically after going off his medication.

So Kazmierczak faced a series of issues that could have exacerbated his mental illness. For one, there are the reports about medication. Although the media has not specified which drugs he was on, four years ago, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about the increased risk of suicide and self-injurious behavior that some anti-depressants can cause in children and teens.

There are few studies about the long-term impact such drugs can have, and even in adults, many psychiatric medications have severe side effects. According to Jessica Baty, Kazmierczak's former girlfriend, he had stopped talking his medication because "it made him feel like a zombie."

Louise Gbadamashi, an employee at Thresholds-Mary Hill House, told the Associated Press that Kazmierczak "never wanted to identify with being mentally ill. That was part of the problem."

But it's not hard to understand why someone might resist identifying as mentally ill, considering that we live in a society in which this is frequently viewed as a personal failure or lack of will, rather than as an illness deserving of treatment and compassion.

One typical attitude was expressed in comments left on a neighborhood blog about Thresholds-Mary Hill House. "I'm not shocked this lunatic lived here," read one comment. "This has always been a problematic building. Wish we could close it down."

In other words: those with mental health problems aren't welcome here. Such attitudes only make it more difficult for those in need of help to come forward when they are facing a crisis.

It seems clear, too, that Kazmierczak's experiences in the military left a mark on him, but since he didn't complete basic training and had a "pre-existing" condition, he would not have been eligible for follow-up treatment from the Veterans Administration.

WHILE MUCH of the commentary circulating about Kazmierczak's actions centers on how "out of the blue" they seemed, it should be remembered that the attack at NIU was at least the third shooting episode this month on a campus. And, of course, the attack came after the killings last April at the Virginia Tech campus that left 33 people dead.

A lot of media attention focused on arguments either in favor of stricter gun control laws or allowing students or professors to carry concealed weapons to "take down" someone like Kazmierczak, but the real debate should be focused on where such violence comes from--and why those who are troubled don't have unimpeded access to the resources that could help them.

In a society in which an estimated $2 billion is spent each week to occupy Iraq--and in which hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis have been slaughtered in the name of "democracy"--is it any wonder that such institutional violence might be mirrored in the actions of individuals who feel as if they no longer control their own lives?

As author Mark Ames commented on the AlterNet Web site, "If we bracket his massacre as the work of an evil lunatic on drugs, we'll miss yet another opportunity to genuinely examine what life is like for most Americans today, who live in that terrifying gap between the official propaganda about a nation of happy fun-loving Number Ones, and the reality of mediocrity, petty malice, and a flat physical setting that reflects the malice and mediocrity of its town elders."

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