Psychiatrists try to explain the unexplainable

DEATH IN DUNBLANE James Cusick on how mass killers can be classified
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The Independent Online
There have been enough mass killings for psychiatrists around the world to adopt a classification that helps them try to explain the unexplainable.

Dr Clive Meux, a consultant forensic psychiatrist at Broadmoor Hospital and a senior lecturer in forensic psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, described yesterday as "an appalling tragedy".

Mass killings like Dunblane, he said, have been split in recent years into three broad groups: mass murders, spree killings, and serial killings. The mass homicides at Dunblane will fit into one of the first two.

"At Hungerford," said Dr Meux, "Michael Ryan killed his victims in more than one place. That is categorised as a spree. But this killer appears to have shot all his victims in one place so this is a mass murder."

One of psychiatry's most studied mass murders was the McDonald's massacre in the United States where 40 people were shot and 21 died.

"We now divide these killings into three further sub-groups," said Dr Meux. "The pseudo-commando is generally a younger man, obsessed with fire arms . . . The second group is the psychotic killer, generally a person severely mentally ill. But a lot of such killers are not mentally ill. Not all suffer from schizophrenia." The third group is called "set and run" killers, who plan their murders.

Dr Meux said: "Difficult as it may be to understand, some individuals who carry out such killings are not suffering from mental illness. This man may not have an illness, yet we ask why did he do this? We can't say."

There would have been no dispute among psychiatrists, he said, about his problems. "He would have had problems with communication, probably would not have talked. he would have displaced his feelings. He would have put his problems elsewhere, put them somewhere perhaps where they had no real relevance, such as this school and these youngsters. And his suicide indicated he would have been severely depressed."

Like Dr Meux, Professor Peter McGuffin, of the University of Wales College of Medicine, warned against merely assuming madness. "Fortunately these mass killings are so rare that no single psychiatrist or police expert has enough experience to understand them fully. They will happen again."