Parkland shooter faces life in prison; how do we navigate the mental health conversation?

By: - October 19, 2022 4:20 pm

Barbed wire. Credit: Alex Potemkin, Getty Images.

Last week, a jury in Broward County recommended sparing Nikolas Cruz, the murderer behind the mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, from capital punishment. The jury recommended life in prison instead.

But as with many widely covered tragedies involving extreme gun violence, myriad questions loom: How did mental health play into the killings? Could mental health services have prevented the tragedy? Does Cruz’ mental health even matter when it comes to providing justice for families who have lost loved ones?

“There’s just hard questions and, you know, not an easy answer for all of this sort of stuff,” Peter Tomasek, editor-in-chief for non-profit Interrogating Justice based in Virginia, told the Florida Phoenix.

As the dust settles on the jury recommendation, those tough questions remain unanswered. Meanwhile, victims’ families and the community at large grapple with the reality that the shooter will not face capital punishment.

“And of course in the backdrop of that, you have the 14 students and three staff members that passed away — and the extra pain that this is going to cause, dealing with sort of the fallout from the case, the jury verdict too,” Tomasek said.

The Miami-Herald reported in August that the shooter’s attorney, Melisa McNeill, argued that his biological mother ingested a variety of drugs and alcohol during her pregnancy, supposedly leading to fetal alcohol syndrome, and continued to show troubling behavior in school.

One Year Anniversary Parkland tragedy
A memorial at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, following the mass shooting on February 14, 2018, in Parkland. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“From his birth onward, jurors heard, Cruz became a violent, disruptive problem child, raised by an adoptive Parkland woman who only reluctantly agreed to get him mental-health services. Over the years, educators chronicled his alarming behavior — his outbursts toward students and teachers, his fixation on guns, his cutting of his own skin — but failed to keep him in a special school for at-risk children or commit him to an involuntary psychiatric evaluation,” the Herald reported.

Of course, not every child who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, self-harms, or who even shows an interest in guns commits acts such as the atrocious Parkland shooting. But the defense lawyer suggested that Cruz’s life and mental health may have played a role.

That said, the National Library of Medicine suggests that the issue of mental health and gun violence is very complicated, arguing that researchers must “abandon the starting assumption that acts of mass violence are driven primarily by diagnosable psychopathology in isolated ‘lone wolf’ individuals.”

“When such accounts are widely adopted as master explanations for shooting rampages, the easily recognizable features of the narrative can obscure the role of many other potentially important contributing factors,” according to a 2021 article titled “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Future of Psychiatric Research into American Gun Violence.”

The article continues: “These might include the perpetrator’s stressful economic circumstances and level of social disadvantage, maladaptive personality development in response to early-life trauma, the psychological sequelae of domestic violence exposure, aggrieved resentment and smoldering anger against individuals or groups perceived to be hostile and threatening, and male gender and aberrant constructions of masculinity—all enhanced by the disinhibiting effects of substance intoxication and easy access to a semi-automatic firearm.”

Mental health awareness at schools

When the jury recommended life in prison for Cruz, Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has marketed mental health initiatives as one of his gubernatorial priorities, did not bring up the potential mental health questions.

“I just wanna say one thing about this verdict with the Parkland killer: I think that if you have a death penalty, at all, that is a case — where you’re massacring those students with premeditation in utter disregard for basic humanity — that you deserve the death penalty,” DeSantis said last week at a press conference in Lee County.

His wife Casey DeSantis has also pushed for mental health awareness among students.

And Wednesday, the Florida Department of Education approved a new rule that ushers in new mental health and wellbeing procedures as a result of what’s called the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which was formed following the Parkland shooting.

The new rule requires that school districts and charter schools annually verify to state education officials that 80 percent of school personnel have completed “youth mental health awareness training.”

This training, according to state statute, includes but is not limited to information on the “potential risk factors and warning signs of emotional disturbance, mental illness, or substance abuse orders, including, but not limited to, depression, anxiety, psychosis, eating disorders, and self-injury, as well as common treatments for those conditions and how to assess those risks.”

Ryan Petty, member of the Florida’s State Board of Education. Credit: DOE.

The new rule also implements additional reporting requirements the total number of threat assessments conducted in a school year, such data being “disaggregated by the total number of non-threats, the total number of transient threats, the total number of substantive threats, and the sex, race, and grade level of all students assessed by the threat assessment team.”

Ryan Petty, a Board of Education member whose daughter was one of the students killed at the Parkland shooting, said at the board meeting:

“This is the culmination of work that started at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission, identifying the problems and the failures that led to the tragedy of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, but that also generally affect the health and welfare and safety of students across the board.”

Florida prisons and mental health

Cruz will be spending the rest of his life in prison. Will he receive mental health services for some of the struggles that his defense lawyers brought up?

According to an inmate orientation handbook released by the Florida Department of Corrections, incarcerated persons are “continuously evaluated” for medical, dental and mental health needs.

The Phoenix reached out to the department for more information on what mental health services look like for incarcerated people such as Cruz.

“Ensuring inmates incarcerated in Florida’s prisons receive medical and behavioral treatment is one of FDC’s core constitutional responsibilities. FDC ensures an appropriate level of health care is provided to all inmates and FDC’s medical provider is held accountable for care in line with evolving national standards. Upon intake every individual receives a complete examination. While incarcerated, inmates are continuously monitored and evaluated for medical, dental and mental health needs,” the department said in an email.

“Without a properly executed Consent for Release form, FDC is prohibited from addressing, explaining or informing anyone about a specific inmate’s medical, psychological, and dental health information by applicable privacy laws,” the written statement continues.

However, being in a prison environment is likely “going to be tough” for the Parkland shooter, according to Tomasek, with Interrogating Justice.

“There’s obviously a lot of controversy around him, specifically,” Tomasek told the Phoenix. “But, I think, I would feel safe in saying that pretty much everybody agrees that prisons aren’t the best place to go for mental health treatment. And it might be tough to sort of take that perspective, considering the person we’re dealing with.”

In addition, the Miami-Herald reports that while serving his life-time sentence, other prisoners may target him, potentially leading to a lifetime of looking over his shoulder.

When it comes to conversations about improving mental health in prisons, Tomasek suggests that focusing on “high-profile cases,” such as the Parkland murderer, might complicate the conversation.

“I would probably suggest not focusing on this kind of case, because there are a lot of people that are significantly less controversial or struggling with mental health issues and who deserve help in prisons, and our society would benefit from helping those people.”

That said, Tomasek said that “even the most severe cases” should be provided mental health services.

“I think that the least that we can do with incarcerated people is trying to provide mental health treatment, even in the most severe cases. And I just don’t know that we’re doing enough,” he told the Phoenix.

“It’s also kind of a thankless endeavor because there’s not a lot of people who are intimately concerned with the well-being of people in prison — and cases like this (Parkland) are a good example of why we kind of have that perspective.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.