Our intent is not to demonize the mentally ill; we must not assume they are violent. But study after study and incident after incident has shown that, left untreated, people with certain forms of mental illness are more dangerous to themselves and to society than others.
Elliot Rodger provides the most recent, heartwrenching example. He was being treated for mental illness, according to what is known about the 22-year-old man who massacred six students in Isla Vista and wounded 13 others before killing himself Friday. Whatever care he was getting, it was insufficient.
It’s an all too common story with a predictable end.
Some civil libertarians contend, wrongly, that people have a right to be left alone – no matter how ill. That makes it too easy for government to abdicate its responsibility to treat people who often are so sick they don’t realize the danger they represent until it’s too late. Far too often, there are warning signs – just as there were with Rodger.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Rodger’s mother repeatedly called authorities after seeing a dark video her son had posted on YouTube. Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies visited his apartment and concluded they could not hold him. Maybe the visit would have turned out differently if a mental health professional had come along.
The Hollywood Reporter said in the hours before the massacre his parents were frantically searching for their son, fearing he would harm himself or others. There are more examples.
In October 2010, Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz., suspended Jared Loughner after five run-ins with campus officers. College administrators urged him to get mental health care. Loughner instead withdrew from college and three months later shot six people to death and seriously wounded Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
In February 2001, UC Santa Barbara student David Attias used his car to kill four people. His father had urged his adult son to take his antipsychotic medication. His son refused, as was his right. Attias was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and spent 10 years at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino County.
In January 2001, Scott Thorpe shot and killed three people in Nevada County, including college sophomore Laura Wilcox. Thorpe’s psychiatrist concluded Thorpe did not meet the criteria for being held for treatment, despite pleas from Thorpe’s brother, then a police sergeant.
The Legislature responded by passing Laura’s Law, which allows counties to establish courts that can order outpatient treatment for severely mentally ill people. Only Nevada, Yolo and Orange counties have fully implemented the law.
A multitude of studies have shown that people suffering from schizophrenia and, to a lesser extent, bipolar disorder are more likely to commit violent crimes. Mixed with alcohol, the propensity is far greater. The Treatment Advocacy Center cites a Canadian study that said there was “no doubt” about the relation “between psychosis and violence” and noted that those in the “immediate social circle” of the mentally ill person are “most at risk.”
Rodger started by killing his roommates.
Laura’s Law should be implemented and enforced across the state – including Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties. Its tenets must include “assisted outpatient” and court-ordered treatment. When implemented and monitored, treatment reduces hospitalization and homelessness, but also allows a much more effective response by law enforcement if a problem develops.
In the weeks ahead, much will be revealed about Rodger’s warped sense of entitlement, misogyny and ability to legally buy guns. All or part of that might be relevant. But this state and nation must confront its unwillingness to more aggressively treat people who are severely mentally ill. We can start here by fully implementing Laura’s Law.