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Healthline Connects

Messed Up Guys with Guns: National Youth Violence Prevention Week


It hurts to write this post. My nephew, David Kofalt, graduated from Virginia Tech last summer. He looks and talks like all the kids you see interviewed on the news. He is smart, sweet, intelligent, articulate, hard working. So was his good friend Ryan Clark. Ryan Clark was one of the wonderful kids whose noble life was ended by rampaging man with guns, Cho Seung-hui. From all accounts, Ryan, or "Stack" as he was affectionately called, was handsome, lovable, caring, fun-loving. He had a 4.0 average, was a few weeks shy of graduating with a triple major and had plans to pursue a PhD. His human brain was functioning superbly. His parents must have been so proud. How they feel today is unbearable to contemplate. What could we possibly give them or do for them to compensate for the loss of this wonderful being they raised and nurtured so well, that he lost his life coming to the aid of another person?

What about the brain of his killer, 23 year old Cho Seung-hui, also a senior at Virginia Tech University, an English major? From the accounts that are coming together, he was a loner, a writer, who was disturbed, quiet, who did not like to talk. Surviving students have told unfathomable stories of him laughing maniacally as he coldly murdered as many kids as he could. His parents must be in utter despair with shame and bewilderment.

The human brain is amazing in its capacity for creativity and destruction. How the brain of the individual develops depends on genes, environment and experiences of the child. Stress hormones can cross the placental barrier, effecting the child in utero. Depressed mothers who are emotionally unavailable to their children and unable to respond to their non-verbal cues wreak havoc with their developing brains.

Mass murderers have one thing in common: they are always male. I'm a huge Sopranos fan, so I am not unfamiliar with cruel, manipulative women or mothers with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I know womens' brains go haywire and they do bad things like kill their kids. No matter, male gender is the number one risk factor for violent behavior. Females are sneaky, covert in their violent acts. Males go on rampages and then shoot their own faces off.

Violent males can't control their impulses. Their frontal lobes, prefrontal cortex and limbic system are wired wrong. They have less grey matter in their brains. The amygdala may be damaged somehow and a Cho Seung-Hui may not experience the rush of pleasure and rewards from socialization that Ryan Clark did. Cho Seung-Hui's brain lost the capacity for empathy or guilt while RAyan Clark's brain overflowed with empathy, compassion, and good humor. A deadly mix of decreased serotonin and increased testosterone may have decreased Cho Seung-Hui's fear and built up a lethal stew in his brain. Combined with easy access to semi-automatic guns, he made a decision to carry out an orgy of anti-social, testosterone fueled mayhem. Ryan Clark was studying, studying hard to understand and help people with malfunctioning brains. Cho Seung-Hui executed him before he had that chance.

It isn't the cops and the kids and the parents who can make a difference. Maybe it's time we in health care start advocating PET scans and neuropsychological evaluations for kids before we put guns in their hands: whether for self-defense, defense of our country, or sport. Would that help us identify kids who need help and prevent youth violence?

For more on this subject, read Asians and the Stigma of Mental Illness:National Minority Health and Health Disparities Month.


Thank you TW Collins for use of your photo, Blood on Your Hands.
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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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