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Santa Monica shooting raises specter of mental health, again

Alleged mass shooters from Aurora, Colo., to Tucson, Ariz., have had brushes with mental-health issues. Early reports suggest that Santa Monica shooting suspect John Zawahri might have, too.

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John Zawahri, a suspected gunman, enters the library at Santa Monica City College during Friday's shooting incident in this image from a surveillance camera video.

Santa Monica Police/Reuters

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The mental health of John Zawahri, accused of fatally shooting five people in Santa Monica, Calif., Friday before being killed by law enforcement, is increasingly becoming a focal point in the search for larger lessons behind yet another mass shooting.

Law-enforcement officials are refusing to speak on the record about Mr. Zawahri's mental health, citing privacy laws. But CNN has reported that Zawahri was hospitalized for mental-health treatment a few years ago, and neighbors and acquaintances have said that Zawahri was troubled by his parents' divorce and point to a history of angry outbursts and a “fascination with guns,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Given that three young men accused of being mass shooters in recent years – Adam Lanza in Newtown, Conn., James Holmes in Aurora, Colo., and Jared Loughner in Tucson, Ariz. – all struggled with mental-health issues, the questions about Zawahri are multiplying.

Mental-health professionals bristle at the assertion that those diagnosed with mental illness are more prone to violence. But some 60 percent of the mass shootings during the past three decades involve an individual with mental-health issues, says John Matthews, a 30-year law-enforcement veteran from Dallas who has studied 60 mass shootings in the US and written "Mass Shootings: Six Steps to Survival."

“These shootings are a serious mental-health issue for our country,” he says. “The de-institutionalization of the entire mental-health system has led us to where we are now,” he adds, referring to the decades-long practice of “mainstreaming,” rather than institutionalizing mental patients.  

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