In the wake of the Isla Vista mass shooting, I’ve been both pleased and upset with the spirited media discussion surrounding mental illness. Pleased because I think that mental illnesses are much more prevalent than most people realize and deserve widespread and open discussion in the public sphere, but also upset because I disagree with much of what has been said, and believe that many of the popular opinions arise from fear and ignorance on the topic of mental illness.
First of all, I don’t believe that being mentally ill makes you anything other than mentally ill. Mental illness covers everything from ADHD, to depression, to schizophrenia, to yes, perhaps psychopathy as well. But simply labeling Elliot Rodger as “mentally ill” places more stigma on all those who are mentally ill and NOT psychopaths. The vast majority of people who are considered mentally ill (even those who are untreated) are functional, non-violent contributors to society. Additionally, I would argue that while the shooting may have been a “pre-mediated act of violence” it was just as much a hate crime. A psychopath may kill for pleasure/sport/other twisted reasons I will never comprehend, but it takes a truly misogynistic psychopath to be driven to kill in “retribution” for perceived grievances against him by the female sex.
What has upset me the most is the popular opinion that this attack (and others in the past, and those that will inevitably happen in the future) are preventable if only we were to improve our mental health system, more specifically making it easier to involuntarily commit individuals to psychiatric institutions. Currently, there are incredibly strict criteria that have to be met in order to involuntarily commit someone. To be involuntarily committed, an individual has to pose a real and clear threat either to themselves or to others, and they have to do so in the presence of law enforcement or psychiatric professionals. And this strict system exists for a reason. It exists to protect against abuses against those who don’t truly and immediately pose a threat to themselves or others. It protects people who don’t deserve to be shut away because they have real problems that aren’t easy to solve, but can and should be solved by cooperative methods before jumping to solutions of last resort. What involuntary commitment doesn’t do is shut away people who would inflict harm but are smart enough to hide their intentions.
Richard Friedman, professor clinical psychology at Weill Cornell Medical School wrote in a NY Times Op-Ed, “Mass killers are almost always young men who tend to be angry loners. They are often psychotic, seething with resentment and planning revenge for perceived slights and injuries … they tend to avoid contact with the mental health care system, so it’s tough to identify and help them. Even when they have received psychiatric evaluation and treatment, as in the case of Mr. Rodger and Adam Lanza, who killed 20 children and seven adults, including his mother, in Connecticut in 2012, we have to acknowledge that our current ability to predict who is likely to be violent is no better than chance.”
Furthermore, I believe people have a gross misconception of what happens once someone is involuntarily committed. As someone who has had a loved one involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility, I know that after the 72 hours (the maximum time that a person can be held in a psychiatric ward against their will), they don’t come out magically fixed. In those 72 hours, they are minimally prevented from harming themselves and from harming others. They might receive counseling, but they don’t even have to talk about what got them there in the first place. No one can force medications, or confessions, or really anything. I know that I can only draw from my very narrow personal experiences, but to me it’s clear that expanding involuntary psychiatric commitments will not be a “quick fix” to eliminate violent attacks.
Recently, Jeff Deeney wrote in The Atlantic, “Involuntary commitments are not the silver bullet some want them to be in dealing with mass shooters. People who are involuntarily committed frequently leave psychiatric institutions little more stable than when they arrived… The public assumes that there is some life-changing intervention that happens inside psychiatric units after someone is committed, that leaves them permanently fixed after 72 hours. In fact, it’s more typical receive little more than observation to make sure one doesn’t harm oneself while on the unit. A social worker will refer you to an outpatient mental health program when you’re discharged, but if you don’t want to go to one you don’t have to.“
I hate that the public and the media look to jump to some quick fix, treating the mentally ill as a problem to be swiftly and bluntly dealt with. Yes, Elliot Rodger may have been mentally ill, but that alone is not what made him a killer.