The Mental Illness of Isla Vista Shooter: Depression, Anxiety, or Asperger’s?

The recent shooting in Isla Vista California is not a new experience for America’s schools. There seems to be a pattern of school shooters having a history of mental illness and previous suspicious behavior, eventually leading to that student becoming the perpetrator in a mass killing.


For instance, it’s no different for the 22-year old Elliot Rodger, who killed 6 students and then himself on May 23, 2014. In 1999, Rodger’s parents were struggling with their son’s deep and puzzling psychological problems as they worked their way through at divorce. At that time, Rodger’s medical doctor recommended that the boy, who was 8 years old at the time, go to a child psychiatrist for more examination because of the possibility of anxiety and depression. Since then, Rodger’s parents have been exploring various methods to support their son’s development and have had trouble facing the difficulties associated with their son’s mental illnesses.


Rodger’s mother described him as being a “high functioning autistic child”, often introverted and lonely. Autism is a complex neurological disorder that is symptomatic in different ways for different teens. Although general symptoms are the same, the specific challenges for each adolescent diagnosed with Autism can vary. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a general term for a variety of complex disorders of the brain, which are typically recognized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behavior. One disorder recognized to be a part of the Autism spectrum is Asperger’s, which might have been a diagnosis for Rodger.


Ms. Smith, Rodger’s behavioral specialist during middle school and later principal of the school Rodger attended for his junior year of high school described him as likely having Asperger’s Syndrome. “He was socially awkward, had trouble making eye contact and was very withdrawn.”


An article in the New York Times indicates that it’s impossible to know whether someone struggling with a mental disorder will ever become violent. “You can’t predict who will and who won’t,” said J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist in San Diego. Although it’s impossible to predict, there are often red flags regarding psychological disorders that become apparent after a tragic event occurs.


This is the case with 20-year old Adam Lanza was obsessed with school shootings and he struggled with mental illness. He had a history of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and often refused to take his medication for this illness. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by repeating thoughts and images that might cause an individual to perform the same rituals over and over again, such as washing hands, locking and unlocking doors, or counting money.


Although, there are many teens with severe mental health concerns, there are often psychological red flags that are noticeable. In Rodger’s case, there were many years that the boy exhibited severe withdrawal and introversion. A friend of the Rodger family and their spokesperson since the event reported to the press a time when he found Elliot Rodger alone at night starry off into the starry dark sky.


Indeed, there are signs to watch for that might lead to saving an entire community. For example, when a teen refuses to take medication, when he or she is in denial about their illness, and when there is frequent societal withdrawal might indicate the need for professional assistance. If these become evident in an adolescent’s behavior, there’s no harm in speaking to a mental health expert. Certainly, in order to keep schools safe, reporting suspicious activity can save lives.




Kennedy, K. (January 13, 2014). Many Teens Struggle with Untreated Mental Illness, but School Screening Still Lacking. The Huffington Post. Retrieved on May 14, 2014 from:

Nagourney, A, Cieply, M., Feuer, A., Lovett, I., (June 1, 2014). Before Brief, Deadly Spree, Trouble Since 8: Elliot O. Rodger’s Killings in California Followed Years of Withdrawal. The New York Times. Retrieved on June 2, 2014 from: