Mental health/illness and cultural context – Thoughts on the UCSB massacre, part one


I am a marriage and family therapist.  The thing that distinguishes MFT training from the other mental health professions – professional/mental health counselors, social workers, psychologists – is our intense clinical training in systems and theoretical training in general systems theory.  You see, in my training, I learned to recognize that what counts as mental health or mental illness varies based on context.  Different cultures, different value systems, all place differing emphases on what constitutes mental health versus mental illness.  This matters in the context of the Elliot Rodger killings because of the brief conversations about mental health that have arisen – and generally quickly quashed – since last week. 


We, as a society, are having a really difficult time figuring out how to have a conversation about mental health, especially as it applies to horrific crimes such as this one.  But I hope I can illuminate throughout this posting why this is not a surprise given  our cultural context.  Through my observation over the past few days of the media – both in print and radio – coverage of this terrible case, it has become obvious that we don’t have, as a nation, a language or understanding to inform a conversation of this kind.  The back and forth has been astonishing – yes, mental illness matters; no, mental illness isn’t the issue; it’s white patriarchal rape culture to blame; misogyny doesn’t matter, mental illness is to blame.  But in the end, the conversation hasn’t really happened at all outside of a few blurts and sound bites here and there.  In fact, the majority of the conversation around mental illness in the Elliot Rodger case has been – he was seeing mental health professionals; why didn’t someone catch this.  The long and the short of it is, the mental health professionals did their jobs – they called authorities and notified them that something was wrong.  Multiple times.  But law enforcement – the people whose job it is to actually detain dangerous people – laughed Rodger off as a good guy.  Before calling his a sociopath a few days later.


So here comes the part where we talk about the link between white patriarchal rape culture and mental health.  And why it’s so uncomfortable for us to have a conversation around mental health and mass murder in this country.  You see, before a few brave women changed the conversation, the initial media response to Elliot Rodger was exactly in line with this white patriarchal rape culture value system.  Initial coverage focused on how unfortunate the plight of this poor, loveless man must be rather than the objectification of the women he suffered.  As the perspective of Rodger’s actions changed over the next 24 hours, so did the story about mental illness and it’s role in the shootings.  All of a sudden, this man’s actions were no longer understandable or pitiable or misunderstood – they were deplorable, sociopathic, terrible.  Even the police who came to Elliot’s door and saw his youtube videos professing his hatred and his plan for “revenge” against women who’d committed the crime of existing walked away feeling like he was a perfectly wonderful human being.  That’s because the sociopathy of this man fell under the normally accepted male privilege and entitlement held of value in this country.  So any conversation around mental health must involve a conversation around our values as a society – and this is not something we seem prepared to do. 


When the conversations around this series of events has been either/or – a cultural divide of simply mental health OR simply misogyny – we’re missing the picture.  You see, this is a both/and – our cultural acceptance of misogynistic male privilege under very strict ideals of what constitutes masculinity – informs our beliefs about and response to mental health crises.  Poorly trained law enforcement officers viewed Rodger’s misogyny as normal and healthy, despite concerns from his family and mental health professionals that he was on the verge of doing precisely what he did.  A society which reinforces, even just in parts, the ideals that Rodger held to be true must be in some ways culpable of the crimes committed by someone taking this idea to its logical conclusion. 


It’s a shame that we seem unwilling and unprepared to have this conversation about the interaction of mental health and our own cultural values.  It could have saved seven lives.