Mass Shootings, Media Ethics, and Stigma

When ignorance poses as expertise

Posted May 27, 2014

After senseless and horrific act of violence, like the one that occurred in Santa Barbara this week, the media typically asks "mental health experts" to try to explain these apparently irrational acts.  Unfortunately, many of these so-called experts are more than willing to speculate far beyond what the facts or the science support, embarrassing both themselves and the field.

So far the most embarrassing and probably unethical interview was given by Dr. Robi Ludwig, PsyD, who speculated that the shooter may have committed his atrocity because of repressed homosexual impulses that led him to resent women for taking men away from him. Really, I'm not making this up (I wish I was that creative!): You can see the video here. If you watch it, you can see that Ludwig then goes on to speculate that Elliot Rodger may have been developing schizophrenia, and that this may explain his violent behavior. This is, of course, a possibility. It is also possible that he was suffering from autism, some other developmental disability, severe depression, antisocial personality disorder, schizotypal personality disorder, paranoid personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, a brain tumor, an endocrine disorder, a really bad head cold, some of the above, all of the above, or none of the above. Yes, they are all possibilities, but none are an explanation for Elliot Rodger's behavior. On the other hand, it is far more certain that such random speculation contributes to the stigmatization of mental illness. While it is tempting to speculate about why Ludwig would engage in this type of ill-informed speculation on national TV, that would be unprofessional of me. Of course, any discussion of how scary and dangerous mentally ill (or repressed homosexual) people are is a wonderful distraction from discussing how absurdly easy it is for angry and dangerous people to legally acquire firearms.

It takes a special kind of talent to provide grist for the homophobic mill and stigmatize those with mental illness, all within two-and-a-half minutes.

After some blowback following her Fox News appearance, Ludwig went to Facebook to clarify that she "was misunderstood." Apparently people who interpreted her speculative question, "Was he angry with women because they were taking away men from him?" as somehow being homophobic misunderstood her. Silly listeners. Ludwig went on to explain, "My job on @judgejeanine was to asses [sic] several possible triggers for #ElliotRoger [sic] and his behavior."

That may have been what Judge Jeanine wanted, but if she was acting as a psychologist, Ludwig should have known that was not her job. When we talk to the media, especially following a tragedy, we can provide context and we can inform the public about the relevant psychological science (e.g., the very weak association between violence and mental illness), but we should never think that our job is to randomly speculate about "possible triggers."