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Psychology can explain the wider picture after tragedies

The world is still in shock after the horrific events in Orlando last weekend, which left many people grieving for their loved ones and many more experiencing loss, distress, confusion and fear. In our statement this week, the British Psychological Society said it was vital to recognise that the attack had targeted the LGBT community.

While any hate attack is an attack on us all, it is important to acknowledge and give voice to the experience, so that we can more effectively support LGBT people who already experience high levels of discrimination and abuse, and, consequently high levels of psychological distress and mental health problems.

After a tragedy like this, society and the media tend to look for simple explanations. And as psychologists, we are often asked to explain why people commit such crimes, and what can be done to prevent them happening again.

It may be superficially attractive to examine the minds (or even brains) of the perpetrators to explain individual events. But our experience and the evidence we produce as psychologists means we have a responsibility to offer a wider picture.

It’s perhaps uncomfortable to accept that we are all, even those of us who commit terrorist hate crimes, products of the events and circumstances that shape our lives. We need to acknowledge that. And we also need to acknowledge that our response to such tragedies must look beyond individuals.

We will never know with any degree of certainty the details of the motivations and thought processes of perpetrators of crimes like these. Indeed we should avoid an undue focus on individual psychology.

But that doesn’t mean we as a society or as a discipline are impotent. It doesn’t mean we’re forced to face the impossible and unwieldy task of ‘changing society’. Excessive focus on individual psychological issues can draw our attention away from more effective solutions.

The Germanwings airline tragedy in 2015 was another disaster ultimately caused by the actions of one individual. It is right that we provide the highest standards of screening, preparation and support for pilots, and we are working with the Civil Aviation Authority and the airline industry to do so. But practical measures, such as enforcing a policy of always having two people in aircraft cockpits, are needed too.

In Orlando, the perpetrator of this crime was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle. As psychologists, we know that strong emotions of anger, fear and hatred are unfortunately commonplace. But this tragedy is a reminder that the combination of these strong emotions and access to deadly weapons is a highly dangerous one.

We should and must play our role in understanding these emotions and supporting the many people who were affected psychologically by this tragedy, but the fact that it was easy for someone to get their hands on deadly weapons is a result of political decisions.

President Barack Obama has called on Congress to reinstate the assault weapons ban as well as pass legislation to make it harder for suspected terrorists to obtain firearms. To quote President Obama: “to actively do nothing is a decision as well”.

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