Think Progress—Could An Improved Mental Health System Stop The Next Elliot Rodger?


by Igor Volsky
Think Progress
May 27 2014

As the nation is still reeling from Elliot Rodger’s horrific shooting spree that left six people and the assailant dead on Friday, lawmakers are searching for ways to help authorities better identify and treat mentally unstable individuals who may be a threat to themselves or others.

It won’t be easy. Rodger, after all, received regular mental health care, but still slipped through the cracks in the system. Family members say that Rodger “was somewhere on the autism spectrum, and he had been in therapy since childhood.” Though he never explicitly threatened himself or anyone else, he resisted mental health treatment after age 18 and, as the LA Times points out, was “conniving enough that authorities did not see a need for involuntary hospitalization.”

ThinkProgress reviewed existing mental health legislation and spoke to a criminologist to determine how best to bolster the mental health system in order to prevent another similar tragedy. Below are five suggestions:

1. Better integrate mental health professionals with law enforcement.
Police deputies visited Rodger just weeks before Friday’s murder spree, but judged that he was not a danger to himself or others. As criminologist Jeffrey Butts explained to ThinkProgress, “Police are trained not to react too aggressively to the mentally ill and to avoid arrests if at all possible. In the past, people with mental illness were too often arrested for simply behaving strangely and not responding to instructions when confronted by police. Last week’s shooting in Santa Barbara reflects a problem at the opposite end of the spectrum — the failure to intervene when mental health issues are not obvious.” He added that mental health professionals should have accompanied law enforcement. “Multi-disciplinary teams are now standard practice in many areas of the country. Indeed, some California counties have implemented the team approach, including San Diego County, just a short drive from Santa Barbara,” he said.

2. Expand funding for specialized training to help law enforcement recognize individuals with mental illness.
Several congressional bills would expand grants “to provide specialized training to law enforcement officers to recognize individuals who have mental illness and how to properly intervene with individuals with mental illness.”

3. Incorporate social media in identifying threats.
The police deputies who interacted with Rodger do not appear to have investigated his social media accounts. Had they learned about his online postings, Rodger may have had a harder time convincing the officers that they weren’t needed. “What you get from someone outside their door after you’ve knocked on it is not necessarily the true person,” constitutional law professor and Second Amendment expert Adam Winkler said. “Sometimes on social media you’ll get a lot better insight into someone’s mental illness.”

4. Encourage states to set new standards for committing people.
Currently, 23 states use a standard requiring a person to be “imminently dangerous” before they can receive inpatient medical care. Under this standard even the severely mentally ill like Rodger “are able to present a brief façade of normality to avoid commitment.” Rep. Tim Murphy’s (R-PA) Helping Families In Mental Health Crisis Act would encourage states to adopt a less standard “need for treatment standard.”

5. Identify and treat mental illness early.
One out of five children and adolescents are living with mental illness, yet schools and communities are often unprepared to diagnose or treat their conditions. Rodger’s parents provided their son with treatment and Rep. Ron Barber’s (D-AZ) Strengthening Mental Health in our Communities Act aims to expand access to those services. It would provide “grants for schools and communities to create comprehensive mental health programs.”

[ read article at ThinkProgress ]