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What Columbine, 'Slender Man' And Elliot Rodger Tell Us About Mental Health Stigma

Ariana Aboulafia |
June 26, 2014 | 6:31 p.m. PDT


We need to focus on mental health before it's too late. (Baker131313)
We need to focus on mental health before it's too late. (Baker131313)
Throughout recent American history, there have been a disturbing number of extremely memorable violent crimes. From the Columbine massacre (and the slew of school shootings that followed at Virginia Tech, Newtown, Santa Barbara and so many more) to the "Slender Man" story, it seems as if shockingly violent crime is becoming almost commonplace in our society and particularly in our media.

These stories shake us to our core, and yet it seems that each and every time something like this happens, it strikes up the same debates among the media and the American public. Not only are they the same debates, they are the wrong debates.

SEE ALSO: Gun Control: The Facts, Figures And Frustrations 

The amount of media coverage on school shootings throughout the past 15 years (since the Columbine shooting) has been immense; you’d have to be living under a rock to not be familiar with the horrifying things that occurred at Columbine and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Because of this, I do not believe another article needs to be written on what exactly happened on April 20, 1999 or May 23, 2014. What does need to be said, though, is what those events, and particularly the ways in which the media covered those events, tell us about our feelings as a society on mental health.

When the Columbine shooting occurred, American media at once covered the actual events of the shooting and then created personality profiles of the perpetrators of the shooting, two boys named Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. One of the most prevalent details of the lives of Klebold and Harris that was uncovered and consistently discussed in the media was the fact that they had been bullied, perhaps over and over again, by their peers at school. According to recordings left behind by Klebold and Harris, the bullying that they experienced at school is at least partially why the pair chose to enter their school with guns, bombs and the intent to kill on April 20, 1999. Following the Columbine shooting, and led by American media, society began its siege to end bullying, a quest that is still occurring to this day. American media and society began to consider the effects of bullying on students, leading to “bully-free school” campaigns and even the documentary “Bully,” which follows the stories of several different American students and their reactions to the bullying that they face each and every day in school. The media coverage of bullying, and particularly the effect that this coverage had in attempting to end bullying, is wholly a good thing – but, it leaves out an extremely important piece of the equation. 

Fifteen years after the Columbine shooting, the tragedy at UCSB reminded us that Columbine may have marked the beginning of extreme acts of violence in schools, but it most certainly did not constitute its end. In many ways, the media coverage of the UCSB shooting was strikingly similar to that of Columbine: first, the media focused on the actual events, then began crafting a personality profile of the perpetrator, Elliot Rodger. Rodger, too, left recordings behind (on his personal YouTube channel) justifying his actions and essentially blaming them on other people. In Rodgers’s most famous (and arguably most abhorrent) video, he discusses being consistently spurned by women at his college, never having a girlfriend and being a virgin. He goes even further and outwardly implies that they (each and every woman who spurned him) deserved to be mercilessly slaughtered – an implication that was later turned into reality. After the acts of violence at UCSB, the media turned its attention to the issue of feminism versus misogyny, and the ways in which a male-centered, misogynistic American society contributed to or even caused Rodgers’s issues with entitlement and the violence that followed. As with the media coverage of Columbine in relation to bullying, the idea of discussing the presence of misogyny and its negative effects on American society is necessary – but it too leaves out an important aspect of the equation.

SEE ALSO: How White, Male Privilege Made A Mass Murderer Of Elliot Rodger

Just over one week after the shooting occurred at UCSB, another horrific act of violence happened halfway across the country. On May 31, two 12-year old Wisconsin girls lured a friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times, apparently motivated by the fictional Internet character “Slender Man.” Slender Man is a sort of Internet boogeyman, popularized by the horror fiction website “Creepy Pasta.” Apparently the girls believed Slender Man was real and that, in order to please him (and leave their current homes to go live with him), they needed to kill someone. They chose a mutual friend, who luckily survived her attack and was found by a cyclist, who brought her to the hospital. She apparently recovered fairly well and was released from the hospital after spending only six days there.

One could say that, in some ways, this story has a happy ending – but does it really? The main focus of the media in covering this story became Internet safety and the importance of parents monitoring what their children are looking at online. Like curbing bullying and noticing misogyny, increasing Internet safety is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But, over and over again, our country is consumed by acts of violence and, over and over again, we turn our attention to the specifics of each case.

When will we instead take a step back, and see the trend that is staring us all in the face? 

Let’s break it down really quickly.

Bullying is bad – it hurts people and can cause significant mental trauma. Getting turned down (by either gender) is not a fun experience, and it can hurt your feelings and leave your ego bruised. Furthermore, any type of society that tells young men that it is acceptable to be violent toward women, no matter what the cause, is clearly dangerous. Finally, there are some messed up things that are on the Internet, and parents would be wise to watch what their children have access to.

These things are all true – the media’s focus on bullying, misogyny and Internet safety was not wrong. But, let’s not get it twisted for another second. There was or is something mentally wrong with the perpetrators of each and every one of these violent crimes. A mentally healthy person does not respond to bullying by bringing a gun to school, does not respond to a bruised ego by stabbing and shooting everyone in his wake, does not respond to a story of the boogeyman by attempting to murder a friend. Bullying exists, misogyny exists and the Internet can be a scary place. But the greatest detriment to our society is not the bullies, nor the misogynists, nor the Internet creeps and trolls; rather, it is our attitude, all of our attitudes, about mental health. Over and over again, our country is thrust into international news for being a hotbed for violence, and over and over again, we focus on the specifics – the people, the places, the perpetrators, the victims, the issue at hand. But the greater issue is the fact that none of these people are mentally healthy, none of these people got the help for their mental and emotional health that they deserved and what is perhaps worst of all is that this greater issue is consistently swept under the rug. 

It is well known that there has been a negative stigma towards those seeking mental health services in America for decades. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately two-thirds of all people with a diagnosable mental illness do not seek treatment, probably because of “fear of disclosure, rejection of friends, and discrimination.” There is the general idea that our collective attitude towards people with mental illnesses is slowly getting better, but is it really? Or does the very fact that we won’t even discuss mental health in the context of violent crimes show that the stigma is very much alive and well? I think the evidence speaks for itself on this one. The specifics of each violent, horrific incident that has recently occurred in the U.S. are just that: specifics. And, with each day that passes, those things will change. But, the thing that will not change, and the thing that does not change, is that these responses are not normal. The thing that does not change is that our youth are in trouble, that they need help, and that they are consistently taking things into their own hands instead of reaching out for help. Maybe they think they are going to be judged for asking for help – or worse, maybe they think they’re going to be denied.

Worst of all, maybe they’re right. 

America, the younger generation is talking to us using guns and knives instead of words. And we’re all wondering just what it’s going to take for somebody to finally listen.


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