(CNN) – Here we go again. Less than a year and a half after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, a young man with a history of chronic anger and mental illness went on a rampage in California, killing six people and injuring 13 others.
In the YouTube videos and 137-page depraved diatribe he left behind, mass murderer Elliot Rodger made one thing very clear: His miserable life was everyone else’s fault and he planned to make innocent people pay.
He hated women and blamed them for rebuffing his advances. He hated the “stuck up” college students who didn’t accept him. He even planned to kill his 6-year-old brother, whom he feared would be more popular with women than he had been.
He made good on most of his threats.
He stabbed three men to death in his apartment before taking his BMW to the streets of Santa Barbara, Calif., shooting and killing three more people and injuring 13 with firearms and his car. After a firefight, police found Rodger dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Afterward, many people argued that we should focus efforts on eliminating misogyny. Cultural and institutional hatred of women is a major problem, but it’s not the root cause of the rampage of a psycho who’s been raging against the world since he was 8. Others blamed gun laws. But even if we toughen up our gun laws and work to eradicate misogyny, without fixing our mental health system first, we’ll never stop another Elliot Rodger.
Under our current mental health laws, at every turn, the adults did what the law specifies. The parents knew their son had major mental health problems and had him in treatment since he was in elementary school. They increased that treatment when he got worse as a teenager.
According to Rodger’s writings, multiple mental health professionals were treating him and prescribed him anti-psychotic drugs. The parents and the professionals were in contact with one another and notified authorities after Rodger had exhibited some alarming behavior. The police responded to requests from Rodger’s family to check on his well-being and found him to be “apparently shy, timid, polite, well-spoken” and did nothing, as mandated by the law.
California has tough gun laws, by U.S. standards. The Santa Barbara sheriff’s office reports Rodger bought his semi-automatic handguns legally. Only a criminal record, treatment in a mental institution or an involuntary commitment would have prevented him from buying weapons. None applied to him. Treatment for mental illness, however, does not prevent anyone in California from buying guns. That takes us back to mental health laws.
How could someone as delusional, dangerous and depraved as Rodger fly under the radar, avoid being put in a hospital or involuntarily committed at some point during his 14 years in therapy? Because mental health laws allow patients the right to self-determination in their treatment of mental illness. That means we have a system of laws and policies that puts mental health decisions in the hands of the mentally ill.
Rodger was free under the law to refuse to take his anti-psychotic medications. His parents could call the police when he made threats of violence on YouTube, but unless he was deemed an “immediate threat,” nothing could be done.
The police could show up and do a “welfare check,” but they had no legal right to search his apartment and belongings, run a check through the gun registry or take his guns away without a warrant for probable cause.
And when Rodger told police it was all one big “misunderstanding,” his explanation determined whether he was going to be committed for treatment – not the words of his parents, his YouTube videos, nor the opinions of his mental health professionals.
That’s just plain stupid.
We have a system that puts the mentally ill in charge of their mental health decisions. Come again?
Under Section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, you can only involuntarily commit someone who is an “immediate threat to himself or herself due to mental disorder” or “immediate threat to someone else’s safety” – and then only for 72 hours.
Once the 72-hour hold is over, if the person is not foaming at the mouth and threatening to harm someone, or expressing thoughts of suicide or homicide, he or she is released.
Then there’s the other wrinkle: just how much – if anything – medical insurance will pay out for services.
It makes no sense that a teenager who makes terrible threats then dismisses them as a “misunderstanding” gets a pass. I’ve heard friends with family members in the mental health system describe it as a “revolving door through hell.” In fact, 75 million American families deal with mental illness, and it can take a toll that includes breaking up marriages and isolating people.
And then there’s the stigma. I suffer from anxiety. While it’s not a “serious” illness, it gave me an insight into the social forces that work against seeking treatment.
When my first child was born in 1999, I had a debilitating case of postpartum depression. Although I could carry a polite conversation, I also had panic attacks and “disassociation hallucinations.” The idea that I could make medical decisions for myself in such a state is absolutely absurd.
Luckily, I had a husband and extended family members who would have institutionalized me had I had refused to choke down my Atavan and Zoloft cocktail every day. I got better.
I’ve continued to take Zoloft for the past 15 years and to this day, certain family members still ask why I “feel the need” to medicate myself, usually with the implication that something’s wrong with needing help for mental illness.
We need to continually push mental health to the forefront of the national conversation. We need to do more about access to mental health services – less than 50 percent of the people with serious mental illness have access to any treatment at all, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
It’s time we switch the balance of power back to the caregivers, the professionals and, yes, to the police. We also need a lower standard than “imminent harm” for an involuntary hold in all states – and a longer stay than just 72 hours.
And when we call upon the authorities to do a well-being check, we need to give them the power, the tools and the authority to make sure the check is complete – including a full search of the person’s home and social media accounts. Without these changes, the mentally ill and their families will be fighting their demons alone, and we’ll be questioning once again why there are demons among us who commit unspeakable violence.
Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator and legal analyst.