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Flowers are placed at the scene of a shooting by Elliot Rodger in California. Rodger’s parents tried to alert authorities about their son.LUCY NICHOLSON/Reuters

Of all the issues being discussed in the wake of the Elliot Rodger's mass murder-suicide in Isla Vista, Calif. last weekend – misogyny, racism and class – the most morally confusing by far is the role of Rodger's parents.

Peter and Chin Rodger, who divorced when their son was seven, are reported by friends to be "in a deep state of grief" and "crippled by guilt" over the actions and loss of their son.

But they shouldn't feel guilty. In many ways, the Rodgers did everything they could for their disturbed adult son. They enrolled him in therapy, kept in regular contact (he had dropped out of college and was living with roommates in Santa Barbara) and monitored his online posts. When his mother noticed disturbing changes in her son's behaviour, she alerted authorities, but they could do nothing: Elliot insisted he was fine and seemed perfectly stable when visited by the police. In the United States (or Canada for that matter), police are not in the habit of locking up seemingly lucid young people just for saying spooky things on YouTube.

Last Friday night, on the evening of Elliot's self-described Day of Retribution, the Rodgers had seen his final video, called the police and were racing toward Santa Barbara in their cars in an effort to prevent their son from following through on the massacre he'd been planning on the Internet for more than a year.

What more could they have done? The answer is, virtually nothing.

The case of Elliot Rodgers highlights a central problem in the system, and that is the historic failure of authorities (be they mental health professionals or police) to listen, respond and be prepared to intervene based on the information supplied by the family and friends of young people suffering from mental illness.

Thankfully, in Canada at least, this is rapidly changing. Dr. Andrea Levinson, head of the Early Intervention Clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said one of the main challenges in her work is making sure a front-line mental health institution such as CAMH is as "family-focused" as possible – particularly where young people are concerned (be they adolescents or young adults "in transition" as Elliot Rodgers was). "With bipolar disorder and psychosis, it's very difficult to engage with the patients on their own. There is often a limited degree of self-knowledge, whereas family members often have a better perspective."

It's this perspective that Levinson encourages her staff to take very seriously indeed. Families, she says, have been historically underutilized in mental health treatment, often because their relationship with the patient has broken down or they simply lack the confidence to assert themselves.

But parents need to trust their instincts, she says. If they detect a disturbing change in their child's behaviour, they should engage the child on the subject, and if it persists in a way that is potentially damaging, they should not be afraid to seek professional advice – and more serious intervention if need be.

"Parents really do know their children best," she says.

"What often happens with patients with mental illness is that their insight goes – their whole sense of the world can become very disconnected. It's very important for everyone involved to have that family connection."

Levinson says that during her rounds on the ward, sometimes up to half her time is spent talking to family members of patients. She says that in her experience, mental health sufferers with supportive and engaged families have a much better chance of recovery.

This sentiment is echoed by Priscilla Ofosu-Barko, manager of client services at Central Toronto Youth Services, a community-based Children's Mental Health Centre. Parents need to be confident enough to intervene when they sense something is wrong, she says, and in order to do that, they need to know they will be taken seriously by mental health professionals and police.

And while Ofosu-Barko concedes it can, in some instances, be difficult to distinguish signs of mental illness from common youthful alienation, engaged parents are usually the first to see the early signs of trouble.

"Is your child suddenly losing interest in things they previously loved and were involved in? Are they suddenly skipping their favourite activities, cutting themselves off from trusted friends, doing badly in subjects they once excelled at?" she asks. "When there's an overall negative change in the young person's level of functioning, that often indicates a mental health issue."

Lisa Harrison, a psychiatric social worker in Victoria, B.C., says parents often attempt intervention too late because they don't want to seem overly authoritarian and paternalistic, especially when dealing with an adult child.

"The police bring these young people to us after their parents call, usually fearing for their own and their child's safety," she explains. "But as horrendous as it is, it's often a huge relief once the parents know their child is safe in treatment and finally has a diagnosis."

The better route, she says, is for parents to seek the help of their general practitioner when initial signs arise, and to remain engaged and alert after that so that, if things escalate, they have a plan. However, as we saw in the tragic case of Elliot Rodgers, early intervention doesn't always work.

In the United States, civil liberties protect the rights of the mentally ill to legally purchase firearms. But they also make it difficult to institutionalize mentally ill people who superficially appear to be fine – even when their families know better.

Canada's mental health legislation varies by province, but in general, patients cannot be forcibly detained and treated unless two psychiatrists assess them to be a risk to themselves or others.

These psychiatrists on the front line need to have contact with family members, says Levinson, particularly when dealing with young people. "In mental health, we need to balance human rights and privacy with seeking prompt access [to treatment] for someone who is unwell," she explained.

The fact is, engaged parents often know their child is mentally ill long before anyone else does. Elliot Rodger's parents knew, and they asked for help. It's a tragedy no one was able to do so.