An Unbalanced Mind–Thoughts on Jared Loughner

by Richard Edwards

(Note: this post probably seems a little out of date, but it has taken me a while to collect my thoughts. Still not sure if I’m there…)

Jared Loughner is, in very plain terms, mentally ill. I’m not a diagnostician, but that seems to me to be the truth of it.

Immediately following the shooting of Rep. Giffords and many others at a speaking event in Arizona, there were emails and blog postings and press releases from NAMI and MHA and the National Council for Behavioral Healthcare around the lack of evidence to show that people with mental health issues are any more violent than the general population.

And research shows that that’s true–you can read about it here, here and here–and it’s important that we don’t paint all people with mental health issues as criminally violent. Studies show that mental illness does not lead to violence, although the likelihood goes way up when you add substance abuse to the mix. So let’s not stigmatize the millions of Americans with mental health issues–many of whom are successfully managing serious and persistent mental illness–by assuming they will–or even could–become the next Jared Loughner.

But in recent weeks, following President Obama’s Tucson speech, I notice the conversation turning to mental health support services….Did we do enough? Should the Community College where Jared Loughner attended classes done more? Should the community have noticed? Should his parents have noticed and taken action? Not so much discussion about whether the national discourse was to blame, but much more about the nitty gritty–at the ground level, what went wrong? This too, seems appopriate to me. In order to prevent the next Jared Loughner, we need to understand the current one.

Several national advocacy agencies are pointing to declining services in Arizona and elsewhere for people with mental health issues as cause for concern. There is also such a thing as mental health first aid, and it’s not hard to imagine how a well-informed community could have recognized the signs of Jared Loughner’s paranoia, before it reached crisis levels, and, given the tools to act, intervened. However, services to people with disabilities and mental illness cost money, and in states across the country, including NC, which faces a 3.7 billion dollar shortfall in FY11-12, money is in short supply.

But doesn’t that sound like we want it both ways? We need to improve access to mental health services for people like Jared to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening–a tragedy which, in the end, also happened to Jared. But how do we advocate for more services on that basis without playing up the potential for violence, and thereby stigmatizing the millions of Americans who deal with emotional or mental health issues everyday and have no propensity for violence whatsoever?

My angle is that Jared’s mental illness had a direct relationship to his crime, but criminal insanity is a legal term, not a diagnosis, and one charged with understandably negative feelings about loopholes and savvy criminals who walk, scot-free. But if Jared Loughner could have been helped with services because he was mentally ill, and if that intervention could have prevented the criminal and insensate act that resulted from his mental illness, and if we think we simply can’t afford those services…

What kind of wall will Arizona build now?

Jared Loughner is, in very plain terms, mentally ill. And his kind of illness took his mind and the lives of 9 people with it, not to mention the nightmare-free existence so many people in Tucson thought they would live until a few weeks ago. In making a way forward from this tragedy, there is, I believe, a middle path–service without segregation; awareness without paranoia; and yes, fiscal restraint without neglect–this is the kind of balance Jared Loughner’s mind couldn’t maintain.

But that’s just my angle. What are your thoughts?

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