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Elliot Rodger and the Santa Barbara Shootings

May 26, 2014

On Friday night in California, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger used knives and handguns to take the lives of 6 college students, and then his own. The question of why has been followed quickly by these: “How could we have stopped this? Would better gun control laws have helped? Was he mentally ill?”

News reports, and Rodger’s own “manifesto,” suggest that he was receiving mental health treatment, although his diagnosis if any remains unclear. His parents were alerted by alarming social media posts and a message from Rodger’s therapist. As many have noted, he bought the firearms used in the attacks legally according to California law.

I do not know exactly what Rodger was struggling with, but it is clear that he was a profoundly ill young man. And I hesitate to give credence to his writing, titled “My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Rodger,” which runs to more than a hundred pages and would never have been read if he had not done such a terrible thing. But his deep jealousy, feelings of inferiority, and hatred of women shine through any artifice.

I’d like instead to focus on something that was put accurately if limitedly by the Santa Barbara sheriff investigating the spree killing. “I think that he was able to fly under the radar, so to speak, in terms of his likelihood or propensity to hurt anyone else,” he told the New York Times. It seems as though Rodger was a “flying under the radar” in many other respects, including his profound inability to engage socially with his peers, and the angry frustration this caused for years leading up to his time in Santa Barbara and his unspeakable acts.

Elliot Rodger appears to have experienced a tough, even brutal social adolescence, by his telling. His home life was difficult and disjointed; his needs for peer approval were not met, despite his striving. However, unlike the untold number of other young people who encounter these setbacks, he developed a horrifying all-or-nothing solution.

These young people must not be ignored—we need to be better educated as a society to see signs of real distress and move to intervene. In his manifesto, Rodger suggests that his “Day of Retribution” need not have happened if women his age had taken an interest in him. I say it could, possibly, have been avoided if the community around him had the knowledge and tools to be more proactive.

By way of example, in hindsight the sheriff regretted that officers called to Rodger’s apartment in April hadn’t made a more thorough investigation. But we can all be more attentive, caring, and willing to help now, before it ever gets to that point.

Tagged with: Mental Health, Public Policy
Harold S. Koplewicz, MD
Harold S. Koplewicz, MD
Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, is the founding President and Medical Director of the Child Mind Institute and is a senior … Read Bio