Mental Health And Violent Media: An In Depth Look

By:    Published: January 8, 2013

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Mental health has been big news recently in light of recent incidents of mass violence, prompting people to evaluate the effects of violent media on mental health. While the subject still remains an ongoing debate, numerous studies show a correlation between violent media and a person’s mental disposition. Here, we take an in-depth look and speak with some experts to get their take on the situation.

Early Warning Signs

First, one must understand there are over 200 different types of mental health problems currently recognized. There are also profound differences between people who have developmental problems, such as autism spectrum disorders, and those who have serious psychological or emotional problems, such as dissociative disorder or paranoid schizophrenia. Not everyone with mental health problems should be painted with the same brush.

It is nearly impossible to predict who is going to have serious mental problems that may cause them to harm themselves or others before they begin to exhibit signs. When an act of violence occurs due to a mental health condition, the circumstances can widely vary from person to person. However, there are some warning signs that parents, teachers, clergy, other family members, friends and other authority figures need to be aware of, including:

  • A history of traumatic events
  • Previous violent behavior or threats, both towards themselves and others
  • Violence towards animals
  • Mood changes
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Substance abuse

While this is not a universal list, these signs are the most significant indicators that someone could have mental health struggles. Research has also shown that people who are maltreated as very young children typically display developmental problems early on, accompanied by social and/or emotional problems later in life.

The Effects Of Media On Mental Health

While not everyone agrees, there is evidence that suggests the images people see in various types of media have a lasting effect on their mental health, both in the short term and long term.

“Companies spend over $3,000,000 for a 30-second Super Bowl advertisement so you will run out and buy their product, but watching hours of violence will have no effect on you?” asks Dr. David Reiss, M.D., a psychiatrist who spent time assisting in Newtown, Connecticut after the Sandy Hook school shooting when asked if violent images in media had any effect on mental health.

Dr. Reiss went on to say, "A psychologically healthy, stable and ethical person is not going to be enticed in any manner to commit a serious violent act due to media representations of violence of any type. Period. On the other end of the spectrum, a psychotic individual may incorporate any experience or information into a delusional system, and if decompensated severely enough into psychosis, may act upon that information." He adds that it isn't just violent imagery from games or movies that can cause this, things like other tragic events or natural disasters can have the same effect.

A study published in the Journal of Health Communication on October 29, 2010 supports Dr. Reiss's position. The study found that children in particular who have a mood disorder are particularly affected by violent, anti-social media.

Psychotherapist Edie Raether agrees, "When someone is not emotionally or mentally stable, those boundaries become even more blurred." She continues, "In a recent report, James Holmes, the Dark Knight killer in Aurora, CO, disclosed that when he was on stage killing 12 people, he felt like he was in a 'video game'.”

Aggression And Violent Media

A study conducted by Iowa State University published in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association of Psychological Science, in September 2001, found that violent games increase aggressive behavior in children and young adults as well as increasing physiological arousal and decreasing pro-social behaviors.

Another study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine in April of 2006 came to the same conclusions. In addition, it found that these types of violent media decreased helping behaviors in children.

Raether says that daily bombardment with violent media is "not only causing us to be desensitized to killing and murder, but it is teaching our children to solve problems by eliminating the person associated with the problem, not by avoidance but by a gun. The massive exposure is literally rewiring brains and developing new neuropathways that weave violence into the fabric of our lives."

Boys Versus Girls

There seems to be an interesting phenomenon when it comes to violence in the media, where boys are more affected than girls. A study published in the May/June 2008 journal, Aggressive Behavior, found that after playing a violent video game, boys behaved more aggressively. However, this was not seen in girls who played the same game.

Indeed this lines up with the most highly publicized incidents of violence. Virtually all of the school shooters or other mass shooters in the last three decades have been male, with one exception being the Goleta Postal Shooting in January of 2006. A study out of Wright State University looked at six school shootings that occurred between January of 1996 and April of 1999 and found remarkable similarities between all of the events. All were carried out by males between the ages of 11 and 18 years old and all but one of the shooters, the youngest, exhibited the same patterns of behavior including having an intense interest in violent media and violent writing.

What’s The Solution?

When considering what can be done to prevent further violence moving forward, experts agree that education and responsibility are a must. They also say that a more effective mental health system is needed to break down barriers to treatment.

According to Raether, “The true answer lies in prevention and character education at an early age, as violence is becoming the 'new norm.'" She continues, "It is about parents showing and teaching respect and compassion, and becoming more actively engaged in the well-being of their children. Entitlement, narcissism and instant self-gratification destroy any sense of community, which must be restored."

Dr. Reiss offers several suggestions including, "Better distribution of information to the public and to families regarding warning signs that suggest a need for evaluation and/or mental health treatment; improved availability of treatment for the severely mentally ill; improved monitoring of the mental status of the severely mentally ill by mental health professionals; improved, humane, safe environmental containment of the severely mentally ill, ranging from hospitalization to supervised living situations." He defines improved treatment as "better tracking of the status and circumstances of patients," instead of “’15 minute med checks' every several months."

The unfortunate truth is that violence will continue to happen in our society. However, with improved mental health care and more responsibility on the part of the media when it comes to violence, we may in fact be able to reduce the amount of violent incidents within this country.

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