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Professionals nationwide reflect on lessons from the Tucson tragedy

March 1, 2011
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-in-Chief
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Industry leaders focus on awareness, education, and bringing a national dialogue to fruition

Pamela Hyde

Pamela hyde director, substance abuse and mental health administration, washington, d.c.
Pamela Hyde, Director, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, WASHINGTON, D.C.

It would be easy to make this [just] a mental health issue, but it's not. It's more complex than that.

[This tragedy] occurred in a [number of] contexts and a lot of people have been talking about those contexts-whether gun control and how the country deals with that, or behavioral health services and how we deal with that, or our political environment and discourse and how we deal with that. There are a whole bunch of contexts to this event, and it's essential to maintain the complexity of it.

That's not to say there isn't a mental health issue, and perhaps a substance abuse issue here, but let's be clear: There's been a lot of speculation about the perpetrator, but unless you take the press accounts as fact, we really don't know. We don't have a diagnosis, we don't have a medical history, and I'm cautious about making any conclusions.

What people always want to jump to is a connection between the mentally ill and violence. But that is obviously not the case and that's not the kind of dialogue we need to have now.

Maybe now is the time for a national dialogue about the role that behavioral health plays in our nation's public life. And that's not as simple as just identifying people around us who may need help, though that is a piece of it that programs like Mental Health First Aid can help to address.

I've called or met with the mayor of Tuscon, with people at the state and local levels in Arizona, with the National Conference of Mayors, and other leaders …

SAMHSA is working on a very detailed plan to react and bring a national dialogue to fruition … not for a dialogue in the behavioral health community, but a national dialogue: What is the role of behavioral health-behavioral health in a very positive sense-in our nation's public life?

That dialogue has implications for how we help our neighbors-not how we watch out for our neighbors-but how we help our neighbors. It has implications for how we fund services and access to services, for how we support families, help kids, and help public institutions including businesses and governments.

Linda Rosenberg

Linda rosenberg ceo, the national council, washington, d.c.
Linda Rosenberg, CEO, The National Council, WASHINGTON, D.C.

I don't see this as a problem of accessibility to services. In Arizona of all places, services are plenty accessible. I think that it's that no one made the connection for this young man who could not make the connection himself. I think this is really, to my way of thinking, a failure of our larger social fabric …

No matter how good services are, no matter how many we have, we're still our brother's keeper. It can't all be done by professionals and organizations. We have to take care of each other.

One of the things that this situation has made clear is how little people know or understand about serious mental illness. There is a need and a desire on the part of all kinds of people to know more, to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness, and to be able to intervene [to help] someone before a tragedy could happen.

One reason that Mental Health First Aid has captured people's imaginations is that we don't have too many ideas about what to do in situations like this. … You know, if you see someone who is actively psychotic, it doesn't make sense to you unless you're in the field. Mental Health First Aid offers people a mechanism for understanding what they're seeing.
It's a 12-hour program that deals with the spectrum of mental illnesses and addictions-anxiety, depression, substance use, and on psychosis. This intensive approach assures that people know more, even 18 months later, and that they feel more comfortable approaching someone who's having a crisis …

Richard Clarke, PhD

Since the tragic events that occurred in Tucson on Jan. 8, it's become clear that in addition to facing a budget crisis, our state faces a crisis of understanding when it comes to the behavioral health system.

Richard clarke, phd ceo, magellan of arizona, phoenix
Richard Clarke, PhD CEO, Magellan of Arizona, PHOENIX

As law enforcement and media looked for answers to what happened in Tucson, unsubstantiated assumptions about the availability and quality of mental health services were put forth. What didn't garner as much attention was the good work of our colleagues in the Tucson-Community Partnership of Southern Arizona and other providers-who stepped up immediately with supports and services … to help their fellow citizens cope with the tragedy.

What the event in Tucson has revealed is that help is available. But, what's needed is education on how and when to seek it.

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