Mental Illness

Michael Carneal had never been diagnosed with a mental illness before the shooting. After the shooting, a history of mental illness on his father’s side of the family was uncovered. When he was evaluated after the shooting by forensic psychiatrists and psychologists, two separate defense experts found him to be able to understand the consequences of his actions but mentally ill at the time of the shooting, while the prosecution’s team determined that he was not mentally ill. He was diagnosed with depression (“dysthymia”) and schizotypal personality disorder by Dr. Dewey Cornell of the University of Virginia and with dysthymia and “traits of schizotypal personality disorder with borderline and paranoid features” by Dr. Diane Schetky of Maine. Drs. Elissa Benedek, William Weitzel, and Charles Clark, hired by the prosecution, concluded that “Michael Carneal was not mentally ill nor mentally retarded at the time of the shootings.”11

All of the reports, however, detailed similar odd behaviors, paranoia, and trouble interpreting social interactions correctly. Michael Carneal reported unreasonable fears. He thought people were looking at him though the air ducts in the bathroom, and worried that if he touched the floor in his bedroom, he could be harmed by assailants lurking under the floor. He often announced when entering his bedroom, “I know you are in here.” He often thought he heard voices calling his name or calling him stupid, but recognized that he might be imagining them. Before the shooting, he told one psychiatrist that he thought he heard people in the prayer group talking about him. He feared going to restaurants because he thought his family would be robbed. As he, his father, and a family friend walked across a quiet college campus the Friday before the shooting en route to a basketball tournament, he remarked, “Boy, you could really get mugged out here.” According to the experts’ reports, he never told his family about his fears because he knew them to be unreasonable.

Some of Michael Carneal’s fears translated into strange behaviors. He covered himself with at least six towels whenever he took a shower and covered the air vents with towels as well. He often slept in the family living room. Knives from the kitchen were discovered under his mattress after the shooting. He reportedly hopped on top of the furniture to avoid touching the floor in his bedroom.

While we cannot determine whether or not Michael Carneal met the diagnostic criteria for mental illness at the time of the shooting, we believe that his paranoia, fears, and misreading of social cues contributed to the shooting. They magnified the extent and meaning of the teasing and bullying that occurred at Heath High School (and probably occurs at all middle and high schools). He misinterpreted group fantasizing about

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