June 3, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Isla Vista

iStock crime scene

On Saturday, May 24, a 22 year-old man drove to the Alpha Phi sorority house at UC Santa Barbara and opened fire, killing two young women and wounding another. By the time he was done that day, he had murdered seven people including himself.

In the week or so that’s passed since, there’s been a number of questions in the media about this complex case – whether the event was motivated by misogyny or mental illness, for example – and why, given that the killer had been in contact with mental health professionals, nothing could be done to stop it.

I don’t claim to have all of the answers, far from it, but I can’t help but want to weigh in here. As a psychologist, it feels especially important to address the legal limitations that can paralyze us from taking action, even when we see signs of danger.

No conversation on this topic is complete without mentioning gun control, so I’ll touch upon that as well, but first I want to discuss what’s turned this event into a national dialogue: the collective nerve that got tweaked regarding the way women experience the world.

What initially attracted my attention to the Isla Vista killings was the online conversation about the evidence that Elliot Rodger left behind of his gender-based rage. He was vocal about the animosity that he felt toward women and the men who earned their affections. As a result, the hashtag #YesAllWomen was ignited on Twitter, and overnight it took on a life of its own – seemingly giving women all over the world a language and opportunity to describe experiences that, sadly, are pretty much universal. Like many people, I was captivated. Even the backlash was engrossing.

But the problem that arose in the fallout was that it created a false dichotomy: was Rodgers mentally ill, or a misogynist?

To put it simply, this is not an either/or issue.

Some people have been reluctant to call Rodger mentally ill because they fear that it could further stigmatize mental illness, so let me begin by addressing that: Very few people who are diagnosed with a mental illness commit violent crimes.

This point is so important that I’m going to repeat it: There’s nothing about being mentally ill that makes a person prone to violence, per se.

That said, it also seems clear that Elliot Rodger had mental health issues. Since I did not personally treat Rodger I’ll abstain from diagnosing him from a distance – but I don’t need to have worked with him one-on-one to make the claim that mentally healthy, well-adjusted individuals don’t go on murder sprees. Despite what others have claimed, mental illness and anger are not mutually exclusive, either.

(I will add though, since there have been rumors that Rodger had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder, that those rumors appears to be false. It’s also important to note, since the same diagnosis was implicated in the Sandy Hook massacre, that it’s actually extremely rare that people who have Asperger’s commit violent crimes.)

It does seem similarly clear though that Rodger’s hatred for women fueled his rampage. The manifesto that he left behind was replete with statements like the following:

I named it the Day of Retribution. It would be a day in which I exact my ultimate retribution and revenge on all of the hedonistic scum who enjoyed lives of pleasure that they don’t deserve. If I can’t have it, I will destroy it. I will destroy all women because I can never have them. I will make them all suffer for rejecting me. I will arm myself with deadly weapons and wage a war against all women and the men they are attracted to. And I will slaughter them like the animals they are. If they won’t accept me among them, then they are my enemies. They showed me no mercy, and in turn I will show them no mercy.

We’re all products of our environment, and there’s a significant amount of data that suggests that Rodger was steeped in a culture that is deeply hostile toward women and their individual sense of agency. So there’s no need to debate something as an either/or issue when it doesn’t have to be. This is a both/and issue.

To address some of the statements that have been made about the failure of his mental health treatment:

Providers in the state of California have very strict confidentiality guidelines. Treaters can only break confidentiality for a patient that they fear could be violent if they can identify a targeted victim.

A person can’t be hospitalized against his or her will simply because someone has a vague fear that he or she could be violent – and a mental health provider can’t be expected to avert an attack that they can’t predict.

For this reason alone can’t look solely to mental health treatment as the answer here, and this brings us, of course, to gun control.

Despite the fact that California has relatively strict gun control laws in comparison to other states in this nation – none of the laws that are currently in place prevented Elliot Roger from legally buying guns, or from passing the background check.

They also apparently failed to empower the police to intervene, because the officers who were called to do a wellness check on Rodger a month before the murders felt that they lacked probable cause to do a proper search.

There’s one thing on my radar though that has the potential to really make a difference in these kinds of cases. Very quickly here in the aftermath of the Isla Vista murders, California lawmakers are trying to push through legislation that would make it so that a person can’t buy a gun if multiple friends and family members have alerted authorities to a potential threat of violence.

I find this particularly promising because the legal barriers stated above prevent mental healthcare providers from taking similar action, and – believe it or not – we want it that way.

Confidentiality is the backbone of mental healthcare, and allowing the government to access protected healthcare information in the name of gun control is a slippery slope that we don’t want to go down. If the power is in the hands of friends and family, however, we don’t need to worry about that.

Of course, a person might fear that this right could be abused – that multiple friends and family members would lie and claim that he was mentally ill to remove his access to firearms for no good reason.

But that person would probably be somewhat paranoid, so maybe he shouldn’t be buying guns anyway.

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