Almost two weeks have passed since the Isla Vista Killings, and it seems that the “popular” views about Elliot Rodger fall into two distinct, but not mutualy exclusive, categories. Some say he was misogynist, an issue which I have previously written about, and then are others who say that he was mentally ill.
But was he mentally ill?
Here is the short version of my answer- Elliot Rodger was not mentally ill, by any honest and rational definition of the concept of mental illness. Some of you might say.. “but how can you be so sure, you are not a medical board certified psychiatrist”. To this my answer is- maybe the problem begins with using medical board certified psychiatrists to diagnose mental illness.
Before we go into that issue- let us first define the concept of illness, as applicable to any type of illness or disease. What do we really mean when we use words like ‘illness’ or ‘disease’? And what does being ‘healthy’ imply? If you think hard enough about it, words such as ‘health’ or ‘illness’ are about the level of function for one or more organ systems in the body. In other words, those words tell you about how things are rather than what caused that condition in the first place. Let me explain that concept a bit further, since it has relevance to the Elliot Roger saga.
Accidentally burning yourself while cooking or breaking a bone while playing sports is not a disease or illness- even though the result of those physical insults can be treated as such. Similarly you can get a fever in response to some viral infection, bacterial infection or even a non-infectious cause such as some types of lymphomas. On the other hand, even a so-called ‘natural’ phenomena like growing old (senescence) can be classified as a disease, rather than something that is actually natural like growing up (maturation). My point is that diseases and illness are therefore best defined as a deviation from optimal organ or whole body function.
But what is the relevance of this to defining mental illness or diseases. Well.. it has to so with what can be considered a mental illness and what cannot. For example- hearing disembodied voices that tell you to kill others or consistently experiencing visual hallucinations is not compatible with normal brain function. Nor is obsessive compulsive behavior that the person implicitly recognizes as irrational. On the other hand- feeling very sad after the death of your child or being depressed in the aftermath of a large adverse life event or after being diagnosed with a terminal illness is normal or physiological. Similarly being sexually attracted to others of your own sex (homosexuality) is not a mental illness- even though it was considered as such by psychiatry until the 1970s.
When we start talking about Elliot Rodger and mental illness, it is necessary to first determine if his worldview was grounded in measurable reality and whether his shyness was a response to that reality.
Based on his manifesto and YouTube videos, it is clear that Elliot saw himself as a victim of the circumstances of his birth. To be more precise, he thought that his social life would have much better if he was white and had richer parents. I , for one, think that he was absolutely correct about both those factors. It does not take a genius to figure out being a white male (as opposed to a half-asian one) and/or being richer in the very affluent parts of coastal south California would have made him far more socially acceptable and desirable. Heck, even being a black or hispanic male is better than being an asian or half-asian male in SoCal- as far as social desirability is concerned. Now this is almost totally about popular perception rather than objective reality, but people (including girls) make their decisions based on popular perceptions- not objective reality. His assessment of his situation, and predicament, was therefore quite accurate.
Elliot also wrote a lot about being ignored, bullied and put down as a kid- both in school and at home. His behavioral problems started after his still married parents moved to California and got divorced within a couple of years. It is also important to note that the peculiar post-divorce custodial arrangements, his father’s remarriage, his father’s busy schedule, his stepmother’s contempt and his mother losing interest in him after the divorce were not conducive to feeling loved, wanted or secure. While his parents did make sure that he had a financially comfortable lifestyle and upbringing- it is clear that they had both abandoned him. The bully-based culture of the american school system did not make things any better and may have directly contributed to his extreme shyness and aversion towards interacting with new people. In other words, his insecurity and shyness were largely a rational response to his experiences, surroundings and condition.
Similarly, neither his manifesto or YouTube videos show any sign of irrational thinking or grandiose expectations. His manifesto in particular is very well written, factually accurate and accurately captures what he was feeling. Nor were the expectations or desires expressed in it or the videos odd. It seems that he wanted one, or at the most a few serial girlfriends, who were pretty and loved him. He was not asking for sex with hundreds or thousands of women, nor did he see himself as a guy who could get all the pussy he wanted. His wants and desires were, if anything, pretty standard for a guy in his age-group.
Now some of you might say- “but, but.. didn’t the doctor prescribe him some anti-psychotic drug which he did not take”. Well.. if you use that logic, then you also have to believe that all those anti-depressants prescribed to people with mild reactive depression, Ritalin to boys with “ADHD”, and anti-psychotics prescribed to people with PTSD and atypical depression-like symptoms are based in evidence-based medicine. Here is a hint- they are not! It is about physicians trying to show that they are doing something- even if that something is useless or actively harmful.
In my opinion, blaming Elliot Roger’s murder spree on misogyny or mental illness are excuses for people to avoid talking about the real social issues that led him to do what he ultimately did. In an earlier era, we would have blamed his actions on witchcraft, wizardry or devil worship.
What do you think? Comments?