UCSB Murder – Misogyny or Mental Illness?

by Dr. Karen Ruskin on May 29, 2014

There’s debate as to whether Elliot Rodger’s violent murder spree was due to misogyny or mental illness. As a Psychotherapist for 20+ years I will boldly state in an effort to set the record straight that this is a clear cut case of mental illness.

Misogyny is defined as the hatred or contempt of women. When you listen to Elliot’s YouTube rants, it is abundantly clear that he was hurting, lonely, feeling helpless and hopeless about his life circumstance, depressed, had feelings of despair and has been experiencing for his entire teen and young adult years; social isolation. This social isolation and a lack of connection with others is not just with regards to the lack of relationship interactions with women. If you listen closely, rather than only picking out what you choose to pick out, for those who are declaring misogyny, Elliot reported feeling socially isolated by males as well. This is a young man who for his teen and young adult existence felt separate from and unaccepted by his peers, which is indeed torture for the human spirit. Does this alone create a murderer? No. 

A young male who has a history of mental illness, who isolates, who feels isolated socially for years, who is depressed, a male like that who displays no affect in his communications, no facial expression, no tone inflection, a lack of emotional expression . . . – this is such a dramatic sign that there is a deep problem going on, one of mental illness. Indeed we as a culture are looking for answers when this type of tragedy happens, we find ourselves yearning to figure out: what are we not doing as a culture, as parents, as mental health experts, as doctors, as law enforcement officials? What can we do to protect our children – our boys, our girls, our husbands, our wives, ourselves? To ignorantly suggest this is purely and simply a case of misogyny is missing the boat entirely.

In my work with young males as a mental health professional, I will share in this article that the most important tools a therapist can teach include: tools for coping when life does not go your way, social skills, cognitive awareness into what one is feeling and mindfulness of healthy techniques to live in one’s every day. Helping young men to heal from their pains, to confront and understand the skeletons in their closet, and to strive to grow from their challenges rather than drown or act out one’s pains – is such an important part of the therapeutic process and life journey for young men.

Men can feel overwhelmingly lonely and experience deep levels of depression when they feel isolated from their male tribe, just as they can feel deep depression when they don’t have emotional, physical and or sexual intimacy with women. That is not a direct link that they will then commit murder or act out violently. In and of itself, loneliness and depression does not mean there will be a violent episode. Murder goes beyond that. For some, anger is depression turned outward. Whereas for others, they turn their depression inward. But . . .  that depression, that anger alone, is not what causes a person to commit murder, for there are many who are depressed and angry and do not commit murder. The mind of a murderer goes beyond this.

As a woman, a mother, a wife, a daughter, as a psychotherapist, as a person . . . I see this horrific situation before me as we learn about it through the varied media outlets, and I like many of you hurt for those whose lives have been hurt. As a mental health and wellness professional, I ask myself: have we learned anything from this tragedy? I ask myself: what can be done going forward? As it concerns me deeply that Elliot’s actions, his acting out on his impulses, his pain, his hurt, he will not be the last young adult male with mental illness to wreak havoc, to act out in a violent manner forever changing the lives of others. His actions have caused trauma on too many lives, even if but one life that is too much. My heart goes out to all of those whose lives have been touched by this tragedy.

It is human nature to try to protect ourselves from the reality of what’s really going on around us by fooling ourselves into thinking the reason why a person has committed murder is something so simplistic as; the hatred of women. To blame that is ignorant. If we fool ourselves, then we feel protected because we think, “AHA! We know the reason why.” As humans, if we fully understand the reason why (e.g., he hates women), then we are able to have closure on what happened because we “understand it”, we now can “make sense of it”. The reality is, it is not that simple. Video games, movies, race, . . . these are just but three additional blame game examples that some cry out in search of something concrete to blame for murder so there can be emotional closure. I am sorry, there is no closure on this matter at the current time.

We as a culture are trying to make sense of this murder. Some try to analyze. Thus many try to diagnosis from afar. We ask ourselves: was he psychotic? Was he delusional? Was he schizophrenic? Did he feel entitled and thus is this a case of “Affluenza”? It’s not uncommon for a young adult who has an affluent upbringing and doesn’t get what they want when they want it, and then commits an act of violence, that some people cry out; “Affluenza”. Not an accepted diagnosis, never the less a term that is used in description to explain/make sense of certain behaviors. Know this: whether you have been raised in an environment where you have oh so very much or you do not have much at all, the fact remains that a person who does not have coping skills to deal with their disappointments, their pain, their rage – far too often is a person that acts out in unhealthy ways. The lack of coping, the lack of life skills, the lack of relationship and social skills, the lack of techniques and strategies to help one’s self get to a better healthier place in one’s life is not about whether one is rich or poor. Some feel entitled when they do not have, that they thus feel entitled that they should and must have and will take what they want. Whereas others feel entitled when they have so much. Rich or poor . . . more examples of items of which some try to blame, to make sense of what happened.

I will not propose a diagnosis, for I have not personally interviewed Elliot. I will boldly state the obvious, he was mentally ill. But beyond that, it is not reasonable to commit to a diagnosis without an evaluation. Mental illness has many layers, of which we as mental health professionals, the police, medical practitioners, the educational system, parents, us as a public, a culture, we are all still trying to figure out how to help and heal those who suffer from mental illness, how to effectively help them to help themselves to manage their mental illness. We are also trying to figure out how to prevent such horrifying tragedies, such trauma, from taking place at the hands of a person with severe mental illness.

When I learned as many of you have heard, that Elliot’s mother was crying out for help, looking out for help from the police . . . I will share with you that as a Psychotherapist, I have worked with parents who struggle with their children’s mental illness. For a parent to reach out to law enforcement for help, it tells you that they have hit a rock bottom that no parent would ever want to reach, that the problems of mental illness has been going on for years.  It’s imperative that mental health experts and law enforcement come together and understand that if a parent reaches out to the police, it means there is a line that has been crossed.  I cannot say why the police did not search the home upon speaking with Elliot, I was not there, nor is it for me to judge. Rather I will say from a Psychotherapeutic lens, for I cannot speak as a lawyer nor as a law enforcement officer, when a parent contacts the police for help when there’s been a history of mental illness that treatment professionals have been involved, that should be reason enough to search. In my humble opinion.

In conclusion, I will state this; to simply try to blame murderous behavior on the hatred or contempt of women in this case when Elliot clearly articulated and displayed both in the said and in the unsaid as it is oh so much more than that, is thus a mistake and sincerely concerns me as a mental health practitioner. We are looking in the wrong place and thus not focusing on the right solutions if we go down that path.

Could the police have prevented the killing spree? Were there warning signs? (I shared my insight during an interview on FOX News Channel’s Hannity: Inside The Mind Of  A Killer). I don’t propose to have all of the answers. I rather propose this article is meant with the intent to open up dialogue today as to what more can we all do as parents, as mental health professionals, as teachers, as educators, as law enforcement, as government, as doctors, as lawyers – what can we do?

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