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Why We May Be Partially to Blame

Stigma Makes People Reluctant to Seek Help


It was about eight years ago that police knocked down my door, found me unconscious, and rushed me to the hospital. A friend had called them, concerned that I might have been planning to hurt myself. This happened in Isla Vista, on the same street where Elliot Rodger lived before he decided to murder six students.

I was in the hospital for two nights and missed a few days of work and a few days of classes. I was embarrassed to tell anyone what had happened, so I didn’t. I lost my job and got further behind in school.

Before I attempted suicide, I went through periods where I feared leaving my apartment, and I was forced to drop out of several quarters of classes. The short walk from I.V. to the UCSB campus seemed unconquerable, and I was unable to complete it without having what I now know to be an anxiety attack. At the time, I knew something wasn’t right, but it never occurred to me that I might have been suffering from a mental illness.

Those who knew me in college will occasionally, and with a smile, tell me that I used to be crazy. I don’t think they’ve ever said this with the intention of upsetting me, but it does.

It upsets me because those who suffer from mental illness aren’t crazy, they’re sick. And as a country, if we want to have a discussion as to what we can and should do to prevent tragedies like Isla Vista, then we need to look closely at how we’ve stigmatized mental illness in the U.S. and educate people so that we don’t continue to stigmatize and further isolate those living with mental illness.

Before I decided to seek help, I was given advice that I should eat more protein and that I was probably “feeling blue” because of my vegetarianism. I was even told, I kid you not, that the devil must have been at work in me.

It took me a long time to truly believe that seeking help didn’t somehow mean that I was inherently flawed — or possessed, for that matter. And had I not sought help, I don’t think I would be here to write this.

In his manifesto, Rodger wrote, “My psychiatrist … Dr. Sophy ended up giving me the same useless advice that every other psychiatrist, psychologist, and counselor had given me in the past.” Rodger then describes that he was prescribed Risperidone, an anti-psychotic medication often used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, “ … I refused to take it, and I never saw Dr. Sophy again after that.”

I can’t help but wonder if the stigma surrounding diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder led Rodger to refuse medication and ultimately disregard the advice of the professionals he saw. And had he received the help he needed, would he have carried out what he chillingly referred to as the “day of retribution”?

I’m in no way trying to justify what Rodger did. There is no doubt in my mind that people like Rodger are the reason why we tend to stigmatize mental illness in the first place. And honestly, it may be unrealistic to place complete blame on something like the stigmatization of mental illness — or even misogyny or a lack of gun control. But after reading Rodger’s manifesto, it’s obvious that he was sick, and it’s obvious that the above issues played a role in what happened. We need to discuss these issues, and we need to implement change. Because if change might possibly save lives, why wouldn’t we be open to it?

Tawni Wold is a freelance writer and editor. She’s also serves as a member of the editorial team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Preventing Chronic Disease Journal.

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