The New York Times Room for Debate seized upon the Isla Vista murders to raise the question of why Elliot Rodger flew under the Santa Barbara sheriff’s radar. It posed the question:
Once again, senseless slaughter has raised questions not only about how mentally disturbed people can obtain guns, but why authorities can’t intervene to prevent violence.
Do the laws regarding mental health professionals’ duty to warn the authorities of a threat need to be toughened to make them more effective?
The question itself is disturbing, aligned with the sheriff’s excuse for the failure to identify a dangerous mentally ill young man.
The gunman, identified as Elliot O. Rodger, 22, did not meet the criteria for an involuntary hold when deputies visited him as part of a welfare check on April 30, Sheriff Brown said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” The deputies were acting on the complaints of Mr. Rodger’s mother, who was alarmed by videos he had posted online.
On the Friday night before the murder spree, Rodger’s parents recognized that their worst fears were likely accurate:
Mr. Rodger’s parents were frantically rushing to find him Friday night after his mother opened an email that contained the manifesto and also received an alarmed call from Mr. Rodger’s therapist, according to a man who described himself as a longtime family friend.
While Mr. Rodger had received mental health treatment and counseling, he had neither been institutionalized nor held involuntarily for treatment, the sheriff said. “And those are the two triggers that actually would have made him a prohibited person in terms of a firearms purchase. So he was able, sadly, to obtain those three firearms” legally.
The question goes now to the mental health therapist, and the Times offers the views of six people, all of whom are on the side of truth and justice, who argue that the law needs to be updated so the therapist could have broken privilege, revealed Rodger’s troubles, notified his parents and the police, prevented him from getting a gun and stopped these senseless murder.
Apparently, it’s far too easy for a crazy kid to bamboozle the sheriff into thinking that the kid isn’t dangerously nuts, so the burden of saving the victims falls to mental health professionals. And the argument is that the Tarasoff duty to warn is at fault.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is one of the participants in the debate, and adopts the language of romance to court a new approach that will keep us safe from the crazies.
There’s no doubt that the laws governing mental health professionals have served as a component for the dangerous circumstances under which law enforcement operates. In most states, a psychiatrist or psychologist can only inform law enforcement officials about patients who “pose a clear and present danger to himself, herself, or to others.” Identifying what exactly this means is an imperfect science, and even when it can be identified, there is still a time lag in severing the mentally ill individual’s ability to possess a weapon and buy ammunition.
Mental health providers and law enforcement officials need flexibility to address situations before they become life threatening. There needs to be greater communication and partnership between the two professions to protect the most seriously mentally ill from hurting themselves or others.
Flexibility. Partnership. Greater communication. And it’s for their own good, to protect the “most seriously mentally ill from hurting themselves.” Or others.
It is not enough to lament our laws. Law enforcement agencies and mental health providers should not be coming together only in the wake of tragic gun violence. Instead, we must act and unite law enforcement and mental health providers to protect communities and advocate – together – for greater services to those suffering from mental illness.
This almost makes me want to invite law enforcement into the therapy room, in the spirit of coming together and cooperation. Except for the missing aspect of the debate that might have been mentioned had the Times not sought the views of only one side.
For those fortunate enough to have access to mental health care, there is a societal interest that they seek it and receive it. It’s not that we expect anyone to become a mass murderer, but that its better and safer for all involved to have relatively sane people walking around rather than nutjobs. Mental health professionals would hate me for using the word “nutjobs,” because it’s derogatory, but the fact remains that their medicine remains tentative and nutjobs abound. Most are harmless. Some are not. Some are very dangerous.
As Dart notes, ” Cook County jail, which I oversee, is the largest mental health institution in the United States.” So let’s create even greater incentives for people to avoid seeking help by making therapy a cooperative venture with the police. Let’s make the jails even larger mental health institutions, because they’re so successful at improving their inmates’ conditions.
Notably, the Room for Debate focuses on the mental health aspect of Elliot Rodger, which is widely argued as secondary to the root cause of his murderous acts, his misogyny. Consider the ramifications of identifying people who hold politically incorrect views as being potentially dangerous, likely insane.
The Tarasoff warning has always been a slippery slope, because the state of understanding of mental illness is more art than science. Who is dangerous? At what point does a person go from deeply disturbed to a threat to another? Where is the tipping point that mandates a mental health professional to not only put aside privilege, but to affirmatively warn?
The tendency to seize upon the latest tragedy as a call to action, to fix what ails us, is strong. Would we have been better off if Elliot Rodger never sought therapy at all? That’s the most likely outcome of watering down the therapist/patient privilege, no matter how sweetly guys like Dart sing Kumbaya.