By Heather Robinson and Jennifer Ginsberg, MSW
It is becoming increasingly clear that the killing spree of Jared Loughner, who claimed the lives of six and injured 14, including beloved Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was not fueled by political ideology; rather, it was the result of severe, chronic, and untreated mental illness.
Our society protects civil liberties. For good reason, individuals cannot be forcibly held in mental facilities unless they voluntarily agree, or are deemed by a mental health professional to be a threat to themselves or others. But given tragic events such as this mass shooting, in which a nine-year-old child was murdered while attending a political event, perhaps it is time to re-examine standards for mandating serious mental health treatment for individuals who demonstrate clear patterns of threatening and intimidating behavior toward others.
Rather than waste energy by erroneously assigning a political motive to the actions of a sick man, isn't it high time to identify the gaping inadequacies in America's health care system that allow people like Loughner to fall through the cracks instead of receiving any sort of intervention that might have prevented this tragedy? Or to identify our own denial and inability to recognize the signs and get someone help before it is too late? (Apparently under Arizona law, one does not need to directly threaten imminent violence in order to qualify for involuntary psychiatric evaluation and treatment).
It is clear that not only was Loughner mentally ill, he was exhibiting patterns of menacing and intimidating behavior over time, was not getting adequate help, and was not getting better. More than one teacher at Pima County Community College, where Loughner had studied, had felt threatened by him. Debbie Scheidemantel, who taught Loughner biology, felt so scared by him she called 911 following confrontations with him over grades. Separately, his math teacher Ben McGahee reported that Loughner's "off topic outbursts during class scared students and disrupted the class," according to the Wall Street Journal. In all, from the time he started college, Loughner had five contacts with campus police, and was ultimately suspended. Administrators informed his parents that if he wanted to return to school, he would need clearance from a mental health professional. It is even possible that his bizarre classroom antics and aggressive behavior were cries for help.
And yet, neither at the time of the shooting, nor at any other time, is there any record Loughner had received any court-appointed treatment for mental illness, or any treatment for mental illness whatsoever.
This story - the repeated, inappropriate classroom disruptions, the terrified students and professors walking on eggshells dealing with a mentally ill student they have no training to manage, is eerily reminiscent of the story of the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho.
Additionally, there are several reports that Loughner was a substance abuser. Drug and alcohol abuse only exacerbates underlying mental disorders, and chronic abusers can develop drug-induced psychosis - which can contribute to violent behavior. Even though his classmates and neighbors reported that Loughner exhibited chronically bizarre and inappropriate behavior, one may speculate that his parents were in denial about the extent of their son's problems, given the fact that his father told reporters that he was "shocked" and "can't understand how this happened" in response to the tragedy. It is unfortunate but common that the parents of both mentally ill and substance abusing individuals tend to deny that their children are suffering, and with that denial the sufferer may not get the treatment that they are unable to seek out on their own.
One of Loughner's friends told Mother Jones magazine that his fixation with Giffords took root in 2007 after he asked her a question at a campaign event - evidence that his killing spree was probably not primarily caused by heightened partisanship and anti-government rhetoric during this past election and its aftermath. Again, the main issue appears to have been severe, longstanding, untreated - or improperly treated - mental illness. Moreover, political discussion, debate, and the use of figurative language cannot be outlawed - they are part of a vibrant political discourse. It would compound the tragedy if people were to use it to demonize legitimate public assembly and gathering to petition government for redress of grievance - a Constitutional right. It would similarly compound the tragedy if politicians, understandably fearful in its wake, stepped back from public forums with their constituents. Interaction with politicians, especially members of Congress and Senators, allows us to share with them our concerns and our priorities.
In the face of evil and tragedy, it is normal to deal with overwhelming grief and rage by attempting to "make sense of the senseless," as President Obama said so eloquently during last night's memorial service for the victims. But the ways we express our confusion and horror have implications, and blaming politicians like Sarah Palin or the tea party movement for this man's ghastly murder spree is not productive or fair. If anything, such misguided sentiment can only stifle political discourse and healthy discussion, and deflect attention from the main problem here - the woeful inadequacy of America's health care system and the persistence of denial among our populace in addressing mental illness.
May this tragedy inspire We the People to make it known to our politicians once and for all that treatment for the severely mentally ill - a long neglected population - should be top priority. Mentally ill individuals need humane, serious help. Not just for them. But for the rest of us.
Heather Robinson is an independent journalist and former Senior Writer for The New York Daily News' Big Town Big Dreams section. She also blogs at www.heatherrobinson.net.
Jennifer Ginsberg, MSW, is the former clinical director of a 120-bed drug and alcohol treatment facility. You can read more of her work at www.jenniferginsberg.com.