The founder and executive director of a Christian-based addiction and mental health counseling helpline says that there were plenty of warning signs that should have prompted a number of different people to seek help for Santa Barbara, California, shooter Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who killed six people before dying from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The California murder spree that took place on May 23 raises questions about the nation's mental health system and the warning signs, says Lighthouse Network's Dr. Karl Benzio, who is also a psychiatrist. He adds that many mental health issues stem from lack of healthy decision-making and coping skills.
"At some point in our lives – and probably at many points – each one of us will face situations that are painful, disappointing, even devastating," Benzio said. "Whether it's broken or non-existent relationships, business or personal failure, or the betrayal or death of a loved one, painful experiences and situations are unavoidable. The only thing over which we have any control is our decision on how we respond to life's onslaughts. Some people respond by denying a problem exists, some by turning to prescription medication or illegal substances as an unhealthy coping mechanism, and some, sadly, by giving into anger and rage until these spill over into harmful actions against themselves or others."
Benzio adds that while each person is ultimately responsible for his or her own decisions and actions, friends and family members can be alert to warning signs that may indicate an underlying problem.
The Christian Post recently interviewed Benzio to get his response to the tragedy in Isla Vista. The interview done by email is below.
CP: Do you have any ideas specifically regarding the Santa Barbara shooter on how this might have been prevented?
Benzio: As the often-used saying goes, "hindsight is 20/20." Unfortunately, in cases like the recent Santa Barbara shooting, this is often true. Several thoughts come to mind in considering how this tragedy might have been prevented.
First, it's critical that police forces have among their personnel someone who has clinical skills to help evaluate individuals struggling with mental health issues who may pose a threat to themselves or others. In conducting mental health evaluations, police should not take the word of a disrupted and dysfunctional individual whose aims are contrary to the police's aims of protecting public safety. In the case of the Santa Barbara shooter, police should have searched his premises immediately upon hearing of his threats and threat targets. Additionally, they should have obtained more information from his parents, as well as from his therapist. While HIPAA laws are intended to protect confidentiality, they have contingences to prioritize safety, and they do not mandate confidentiality if the threat of danger is a concern.
Additionally, if police take these actions and an individual resists, this is a sign that heightens suspicion of a problem, and police should then bring the individual in for evaluation on a mental health warrant.
In terms of what the community might do to prevent such acts of violence, people who viewed the video posted by Mr. Rodger could have petitioned for a commitment to have him evaluated by a clinician to determine if he needed to be committed to a short-term residential hospitalization program for evaluation and the development of a treatment recommendation and strategy.
Parents and therapists also have a role to play, and they can collaborate in actions including:
- Searching an individual's premises and belongings
- Questioning him about concerns and inconsistencies
- Identifying misinterpretations he may have and working to re-interpret them to match truth
- Observing his reactions when his misinterpretations are challenged
- Holding him accountable to a plan for moving forward, including providing privileges for appropriate functioning and consequences, boundaries, and limits to protect the individual in areas in which skills are lacking.
Environmental factors also play into a person's thoughts and actions, and another area of concern is whether Mr. Rodger was in a school environment that might have exasperated his issues. For someone exhibiting mental health issues, a smaller and more specialized school situation that includes a therapeutic component is probably required.
Although I'm not sure of Mr. Rodger's specific family relationships, it appears that there needed to be more of a connection and more involvement by parents, as it sounds as if they were very involved with projects that kept them distant relationally. This is simply a guess based on my limited view of their professions and circles.
CP: What do you find most alarming about the Santa Barbara massacre?
Benzio: It's particularly concerning that so many warning signs that were apparent to Mr. Rodger's family and friends went largely unheeded. It's also concerning that police went to his home but then relied on his responses in making their determination.
Additionally, reports suggest there was minimal collaboration among therapists, parents, police, friends, and people who viewed the videos. This reinforces the concerning trend that society has become callous to threats and dysfunction and that these don't raise serious concerns unless you are the parent.
Lastly, a common theme among sensitive people who are hurt and do not have people they feel they can turn to, or the skills to process their hurts and the resulting distortions in their perspectives, is that they will keep their feelings inside for a time, and then the volcano will explode.
CP: What is the most important thing for friends and family members of someone struggling with emotional and mental health issues to remember? What are the most important action steps?
Benzio: The most important thing to remember is that we are all limited, and we need to rest in God, in His peace and in His power. With that said, we are charged to be stewards, and we should never be inhibited in stepping up and saying something is unusual or in pushing for safety or for what is right.
If you're faced with someone who has struggles, try to educate yourself about the laws and rules governing such situations. Don't ever be afraid to give information about your concerns to a clinician. They can always receive information, although they may not be able legally to give you any information. Additionally, if a therapist is unwilling to listen to information from a concerned love one, look for a new therapist.
It's also important that you find a support group for yourself, as facing someone who has mental health or behavioral struggles is often a long-term battle with times of extreme stress. It's important to put yourself in an environment in which you can get prayer, encouragement and expert guidance from others who have been through what you're going through and have learned from it.
In terms of specific steps to take with a struggling loved one, be sure to haves lines of communication open and to work to maintain a relationship with your loved one. Remember, though, that saying "no" and putting boundaries in place is often the most loving thing you can do. Additionally, focus on prayer and your own spiritual growth as these are critical to helping you continue to love your struggling loved one even though they will present many stressors and conflicts.
Also, you need to be able to recognize and accept that your well-being is not dependent on their well-being. And have realistic expectations.
Be sure to look for a therapist for your loved one who has a very concrete game plan and specific homework assignments that are realistic and doable, which will help your loved one achieve incremental goals and grow more competent.
Additionally, try to use the leverage you have as a person in your loved one's life to encourage as much transparency and openness as possible with regard to their activities, treatment, and medication compliance.
Finally, don't be afraid of psychiatric medications, as they can be very helpful in many circumstances when prescribed and used appropriately.
For more information on Lighthouse Network, visit www.LighthouseNetwork.org or call the Lighthouse Life Change Helpline toll-free at 1-844-LIFE-CHANGE (1-844-543-3242).