EDITORIAL: State, nation must do more to treat mentally ill people

Last week's Isla Vista massacre is latest all-too-common tragedy.

FresnoMay 28, 2014 

Elliot Rodger's deadly rampage and numerous other attacks underscores the tragedy of untreated mental illness and the responsibility of the state and federal government to do more to treat the seriously mentally ill before such events happen again.

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Elliot Rodger was receiving treatment for mental illness, according to what is known now about the 22-year-old man who massacred six students in Isla Vista and apparently killed himself on Friday.

Clearly, whatever care he received was not sufficient. It's a story that is all too common. Untreated and undertreated mental illness has led to far too many deaths.

The fundamental conflict is one of rights and responsibilities. Some civil libertarians contend, wrongly, that people have a right to be left alone, no matter how ill they are. That makes it all too easy for government to abdicate its responsibility to treat people who often are so sick that they don't realize they need care until it's too late.

In October 2010, Pima Community College suspended Jared Loughner after he had five run-ins with campus cops. College administrators urged that he get mental health care. Loughner instead withdrew from college. Three months later, he shot six people to death and seriously wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a Safeway in Tucson.

In February 2001, UC Santa Barbara student David Attias used his car as a deadly weapon, killing four people in Isla Vista. His father testified that he urged his son, an adult, to take his antipsychotic medication. His son had the right to refuse, and he did. Attias was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and spent 10 years at a state hospital.

In January 2001, Scott Thorpe shot and killed three people in Nevada County, including college sophomore Laura Wilcox. Thorpe's psychiatrist concluded Thorpe did not meet the criteria for being held for treatment, despite pleas from Thorpe's brother.

The Legislature responded by approving Laura's Law, which allows counties to establish courts that can order outpatient treatment for severely mentally ill people. Only Nevada, Yolo and Orange counties have fully embraced the law.

On the day after the Isla Vista rampage, a Los Angeles agent who knows the Rodger family was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying Rodger's mother had called authorities last month after seeing a particularly dark video her son had posted on YouTube.

Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies visited Rodger at his Santa Barbara-area apartment and concluded they could not hold the Santa Barbara City College student. Maybe the visit would have turned out differently if a mental health care expert had accompanied the deputies.

In the coming days, much will be revealed about Rodger's warped sense of entitlement, his misogyny and his ability to legally purchase guns. All that may be relevant. But this state and nation must confront the inability or unwillingness to more aggressively treat people who are severely mentally ill.

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