So far, there’s not a whole lot known about James Eagan Holmes, the 24-year old whom police say fatally shot 12 people and injured dozens more in a suburban Denver movie theater during the premiere of the new Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises.” As the nation grieves for the families of the victims, questions about the alleged perpetrator are swirling.
What we do know paints a picture of a young man who might have reasonably harbored high expectations of a successful life. He was raised in a well-tended middle class suburban neighborhood in San Diego. And he earned a scholarship to the University of California, Riverside where he distinguished himself, earning a B.S. neuroscience in the spring of 2010. Chancellor Timothy P. White told reporters Friday that "academically, he was at the top of the top" and demonstrated “obvious intellectual capacity."
But after graduating, it seems that Holmes had difficulty finding a job. According to a neighbor, Tom Mai, he ended up working at McDonald’s.
"I felt bad for him because he studied so hard," said Mai. "My brother said he looked kind of down; he seemed depressed."
Holmes then went back to school to get another degree, enrolling as a doctoral student at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora. At the time of the shooting, he was in the process of withdrawing.
Reports of a syllabus suggest that Holmes may have studied substance abuse, schizophrenia, depression and other disorders. Apparently he was scheduled to present a paper on miRNA markers that contribute to neurological disorders in May. It is not yet known if Holmes had any history of mental illness himself.
Obviously, a person would have to be gravely disturbed to commit mass murder dressed in full ballistic gear and refer to himself as “The Joker,” the arch-enemy of Batman. Investigators will be searching Holmes’ history for clues as to what triggered a man with no prior record of violence to turn homicidal.
There may have been many factors that contributed to Holmes' brutal rampage. And we may never know the full story. But the comments of the family neighbor raise a question: Did his experience in the job market contribute to Holmes’ state of mind? Certainly it is a fact that the economic crisis has taken a terrible toll on young people across America. The March 2012 unemployment rate for workers under age 25 was twice as high as the national average, standing at 16.4 percent. For young college graduates, the unemployment rate was 10.4 percent in 2010 and 9.4 percent over 2011, while the underemployment rate was 19.8 percent in 2010 and 19.1 percent in 2011.
Failure to find a first job or keep it for long can have damaging long-term consequences on the lives of our youth. Research shows that spells of unemployment for a young person often damage the person’s happiness and health for many years to come.
The California unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation. Of course, there were many young people other than Holmes who ended up working at McDonald’s after graduating with honors. And only one of them turned a movie theater into a slaughterhouse. But global reports of the connection between mental health and employment prospects are showing us that young people often suffer from feelings of self-loathing, failure, panic, and a whole range of mental health problems during times of high joblessness.
A recent study by the National Institutes of Health found that “youth unemployment is associated with an increased vulnerability to psychiatric disorder.” Unemployment, the study found, can also influence the course of pre-existing disorders. We don’t know yet if this bears on the Holmes case. But we can be sure that for young people facing a tough job market, the chances of tragedies increase: suicide rates spike, as does the incidence of violence. Budget cuts, shredded safety nets, and flawed health insurance make finding help more and more difficult for those who are suffering distress.
Shooting sprees are a rare event, but in the wake of such a tragedy, we'll need to look at all the broader societal conditions that may have interacted with and possibly exacerbated the state of a disturbed mind, from the easy availability of guns to access to adequate mental health services. And we'll need to think long and hard about the stress created in young people for whom the combination of high unemployment and mental strain can become the potential catalyst for disaster.