When Elliot Rodger fatally wounded six people, injured 12 others and killed himself on May 23, 2014, police officers and mental health professionals repeatedly asked the same question: “How could we not know?”
The following days made this unanswered question even more difficult to address. Rodger had written a 137-page manifesto on his anxiety and anger over feelings of sexual rejection by women. In addition to this treatise, Rodger had posted dozens of YouTube videos of himself explicating his views. “If only we had known,” media pundits exclaimed.
As the dust settles on Rodger’s actions, many experts are beginning to dig deeper into the issue of identifying individuals at higher risk of violent acts. If Rodger could have been identified as having a mental health illness, it could mean that his and other similar crimes are entirely preventable. The problem lies in increasing the avenues that mentally ill people, their friends and their families have to connect them with the proper mental health care.
Hindsight is clear, but unhelpful
As is typical in cases of mass violence, mainstream media outlets have dug into Rodger’s past. While it is still unclear if Rodger had a diagnosed mental illness, such as Adam Lanza and James Eagan Holmes, some critics claim that his activities over the last several years should have been red flags for authorities to connect him with qualified medical professionals.
CNN has put together a complete timeline of Rodger’s life, starting with his move to Santa Barbara to attend college in 2011 and ending with his shooting in 2014. Each step of the timeline is punctuated by an unusual incident – dumping beverages on a couple enjoying each other’s company in public or spraying popular college students with a super soaker filled with orange juice – complete with a cherry-picked quote from Rodger’s manifesto or one of his YouTube videos. Reading through the timeline, the picture of an at-risk young man in need of help is undeniable.
The CNN timeline and stories like it reaffirm the fact that Rodger needed treatment. The question then becomes how the system failed Rodger and allowed him to continue on with his life until the shooting.
Unlike CNN’s neatly constructed timeline, the answer is less satisfying. Rodger had not fallen through the cracks of the mental health treatment network. In fact, he had been seeing a therapist regularly, and police had visited his apartment about a month before the shootings at the request of his mother and psychiatrist.
However, the officers that visited Rodger may not have been properly trained to identify individuals at risk of mental disorders, TIME magazine reported. Crisis-intervention training is available to police officers in Santa Barbara County, but the National Alliance on Mental Illness told the news source that only 30 law-enforcement officers across the U.S. receive such training each year.
It is unclear if the officers who visited Rodger’s apartment would have just assessed him as a shy, anxious young man had they undergone crisis-intervention training, but such a limited number of qualified law enforcement professionals is unlikely to help in similar situations in the future.
Looking past police officers
Law enforcement often carries the burden for incidents of mass violence. Public perception is that those with mental health illnesses and predisposed to violence constitute a threat to public safety. A portion of the public believes these perpetrators should be treated as criminals and dealt with punitively.
However, Jessica Cruz, executive director of NAMI California, explained that, to be effective, treatment for the mentally ill cannot fall exclusively under the purview of law enforcement.
“We should be able to call somebody other than the police for our loved ones going through a mental-health crisis,” Cruz told TIME magazine. “[Rodger’s] family did everything they could have done. If a family is worried about their loved one and they call who they think they’re supposed to call, what else can you do?”
According to Congressman Tim Murphy (R-Pennsylvania), not only should there be a wider network of support and accessible treatment for people like Rodger, but families should have more control over connecting their loved ones with adequate care. Murphy, the only member of Congress to also hold a degree in clinical psychiatry, has introduced a bill that would give the family members of mentally ill people more control in determining the course of treatment for their loved ones.
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act would amend portions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that currently bar family members from entering loved ones into treatment involuntarily. The current threshold for placing people into care for mental health illnesses against their wills is that they pose an imminent danger to themselves or others, but Murphy’s bill would change this to anyone who “due to mental illness, lacks capacity to fully understand or lacks judgment to make informed decisions regarding his or her need for treatment, care, or supervision,” The New Republic reported.
It is impossible to say if Murphy’s bill would have prevented the Isla Vista tragedy, but it is a step in the right direction for expanding mental health services to those who need them. California currently prohibits families from demanding court-ordered psychiatric evaluations for third parties, but such an action may have alerted authorities to Rodger’s mental state before it was too late.