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After The Arizona Massacre, The Issue Almost No One Is Talking About But On Which (Hopefully) We Can Agree

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As President Obama lifted the hearts of the nation Wednesday night, I find my own heart lifted.

He’s entirely right to move past assigning blame for the massacre in Arizona, and I feel called, as the president asks, to live up to the expectations of Christina Taylor Green, the little 9-year-old girl who was murdered while coming to meet Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

(I say that, it must be noted, as one who earlier pointed my finger squarely at Sarah Palin for fueling political ill-will leading up to the tragedy.)

The president noted, of course, how the shootings have touched off a national debate on a host of related issues, which he says includes “adequacy of our mental health system.”

In fact, I’ve seen very little broader discussion of that point, compared to the debates over gun control and the potential political motivations behind the attack.

That’s unfortunate. Because on a deeper level, it doesn’t matter whether you believe alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner was a deeply unstable young man driven by political vitriol, or rather he simply was a deranged individual with a gun.

Liberal and conservative — left, right, and center — understand Loughner to have been profoundly mentally ill.

One portrait this week goes so far as to paint the 22-year-old Loughner as a “‘textbook’ case paranoid schizophrenic.”

In truth, it may be months, or years, before we know the full extent of Loughner’s mental state.

But in one of the few statements that directly addresses the mental health implications of the Arizona tragedy, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) issued this one.

In it, Executive Director Michael Fitzpatrick begins asking some salient questions, such as:

•Was there a diagnosis?
•What is the full medical history?
•When were symptoms first noticed?
•Did family members receive education about mental illness and support?
•Did the person or family ever seek treatment—only to have it delayed or denied?

•Was the person seen by mental health professionals? By whom? How often?
•Was treatment coordinated among different professionals?
•Was the person prescribed medication? Was it being taken? If not, why not?
•Was substance abuse involved?
•What may have triggered the psychiatric crisis?

Acts of violence among the mentally ill are the exceptions, not the rule, Fitzpatrick says.

“They are a sign that something has gone terribly wrong, usually in the mental healthcare system,” he says.

“Nationwide, the mental health care system is broken. Arizona, like other states, has deeply cut mental health services,” he adds. “Arizona has a broad civil commitment law to require treatment if it is needed; however, the law cannot work if an evaluation is never conducted or mental health services are not available.”

It is also a truth, sadly, to say Jared Lee Loughner is hardly unique.

He is but the latest madman to generate headlines which for years have been filled with the news of similar murderous rampages.

Loughner was preceeded by the deranged teens who led the massacre at Columbine High School more than a decade ago, the gunman who more recently killed more than 30 at Virginia Tech — to say nothing of the killings that touch American cities and towns every day.

Improved access to mental health counseling and services usually is seen as offering a benefit or generosity to those who seek them out.

Perhaps that’s the wrong way to look at it.

Maybe we should turn it around and begin to look at enhanced access to mental health treatment as a sound public safety investment to protect ourselves.

Wider mental health availability certainly would be no panacea, but the fact is that the dead and wounded in that Tucson parking lot could have been any of us, at any time.

We surely want not to be the next ones to meet another Jared Lee Loughner, and certainly we don’t want any more 9-year-old little girls to be shot dead during a trip to a grocery store.

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About Scott Nance

  • John Lake

    The issue of the need for treatment for disabled individuals was touched upon briefly in my earlier article here at BC. There was considerable discussion of the shooting and the related areas.
    Incidentally, while many had felt deeply the case for Loughner’s mental health, new findings indicate that his interests in such as conscience dreaming may have been the result (his close friend points out) of Loughner having smoked the flower, Salvia, a hallucinogenic.

  • Baronius

    There are too many differing stories for me to make a guess about the causes of Loughner’s mental state. There are definitely a lot of things that could cause hallucinations.

    I made a comment on another thread about involuntary commitment, and it didn’t go over well. I don’t think there is a lot of agreement about mental health issues, at least on BC.

  • http://handyfilm.blogspot.com handyguy

    Involuntary commitments happen every day. But few if any of us know enough to say Loughner’s behavior before last Saturday would have justified involuntary commitment. A few sketchy and sometimes contradictory news reports don’t add up to anything close to definitive knowledge.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena/ Irene Athena

    Baronius, what do you think about children being screened for signs of mental disorder in schools? This has been done for years for hearing and vision problems. I’ve heard the idea suggested, but parents were upset because of the stigma attached to mental illness (and the parents are so often unfairly blamed) and for fear that medications would be not only prescribed, but also administered in schools, with the parents having no say in the matter.

    It seems though, that the earlier a child is given the power to control his moods (rather than the other way around) the better. A parent would really have to trust the person who made the assessment though, and see examples of children whose lives had been improved with psych treatment – medication, or counseling, or both.

    Many would not be able to afford this treatment–and it’s not hard to understand why a family’s genetic predisposition to mental illness is often accompanied by generational poverty. The idea of government funding for mental health programs could be sold to the fiscally conservative population as good domestic security policy–but this might tend to increase the stigma of mental illness and feed the misconception that mentally ill people are violent people, whereas most of them suffer quietly and don’t make the news. (Kind of like the “collateral damage” that results from our expensive FOREIGN policy.)

    I think in the end, it would be good for our society–not just our government– to recognize that problems with reasoning, judgment and mood control limit a child’s chances for success as much as hearing and vision problems do, and should be identified and treated (treatment being subsidized if necessary) at an early age.

  • Boeke

    There is almost no chance that the USA, which seems to be firmly against Universal Healthcare for citizens with physical problems is going to support Mental Healthcare. So they will continue to be sent to prison, usually after finally committing some grievous crime to another citizen, maybe murder. Ironically, in those prisons they will cost society far more than healthcare would have cost in the first place.

    Penny wise and pound foolish.

    But at least we will get our vengeance!

  • Doug Hunter

    I don’t think we need to create more drugged out kids or glorified institutions/prisons in some half cocked knee jerk reaction to a handful of incidents. Now, as #4 points out, if drugging the chronically poor population can make them functioning members of society, decrease crime & jail, increase employment, etc. then you might have an argument. I don’t think such a magic pill exists, but I’m always open to scientific evidence.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena/ Irene Athena

    #6, Here’s an encouraging link having nothing to do with “magic pills.*” There was a pilot program, since adopted elsewhere because of its success, in which prison inmates were screened for one particular psych disorder, and put through a 14-week “Life Skills” program (no medication.)

    The recidivism rate without the program was 67%. For inmates who finished the program, it was 27%. Imagine the results if these problems had been identified and fixed earlier on in life. Imagine the savings in prison costs alone!

    [[*Some mental disorders are successfully treated with medication, as the brain is an organ after all. But successful treatment of some disorders does not always require medication. That’s why my comment referred to, not “magic pills,” but rather “medication, counseling or both.”]]

  • Doug Hunter

    #7 Those are very promising results.

    I’ve long advocated that practical tools and “life skills” should be made more a part of public education. It has it’s problems as many people learn these skills at home and have no need for the courses while only accepting those that need help would stigmatize them, but the benefits would outweigh the inconvenience as this study has shown.

  • http://thingsalongtheway.blogspot.com/ Cindy

    Too late to invest in mental health now. Real mental health is likely gonna be impossible–what with the Jerry Springer-mindset prominent among TV viewers (and that means the coming youth will all be raised on the spectacle of other peoples’ misery and sickness).

    Meanwhile, my experience with the mental health system shows that Fitzpatrick hasn’t a fucking clue (as most know-nothings who represent you). The mental health system is not broken, that would mean that at some point it worked! It has never worked.

    Prepare for far worse than Jareds. My guess is this culture is in the process of turning itself into a petri dish for some real disease.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena/ Irene Athena

    Hiya Cindy. Well NAMI’s site admits that access to mental health services in the U.S. rates a “D” overall, with six states getting an “F.” (is the NAMI director the Fitzpatrick you mean?)
    I wonder what’s going on as you cross the border from Arkansas (rates an F) into Oklahoma(with the highest rating, at B)? There must be SOME practice that’s making a positive difference.

  • http://thingsalongtheway.blogspot.com/ Cindy

    Hiya Irene,

    Yes, NAMI Director. Dunno about why Oklahoma, Maryland, NY and Maine? I think, are rated better. I can say NJ sucks. ;-)

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena/ Irene Athena

    Yikes, Cindy. The report says “Urgent Needs” for NJ includes “resolve civil rights and safety issues in state hospitals.”

    It looks like one of the things Oklahoma has going for it is mental health courts, going along the lines of what #8 and I were discussing. It’s sad how “getting tough on crime” means sending a kid straight past treatment, straight past the JUVENILE CORRECTION system even, and right into jail with the most hardened adult criminals.

  • Boeke

    #7 Irene: good post. I’ll read the article later, but I wanted to thank you for posting an informative citation, as opposed to the ephemeral dreams of under-informed and over-opinionated loudmouths that clutter this blog.

  • Clavos

    Huckabee had a nice take on the president’s speech after the Tucson massacre tonight.

    He commended President Obama for his insight, his compassion, and his leadership in keeping the focus on the incident itself and on the tragedy of the lost lives and hurting families, as opposed to the accompanying political discussion, calling the speech Obama’s “finest to date.”

    THEN he came down — hard, very hard — on the skanks in the national media who, no sooner had the president finished his speech, launched into a debate as to whether the speech “helped” or “hurt” Obama’s political standing with the rest of government and with the people.

    Huckabee is right; the MSM news readers and self-proclaimed “experts” (right and left) are becoming more irrelevant and sleazier by the day.

  • Marcia Neil

    How amateur — send out another baldie to bond with the missing/fugitive Fisher, then line-dance him into jail? Nope, same atrocious result.