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The shootings in Tucson and scapegoating of the mentally ill

January 19, 2011
by Jack Carney, DSW
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In this past Sunday's edition ofThe New York Times, Frank Rich led off his weekly column with a discourse on “denial” and its usual American manifestations. I have a particular interest in this subject; and, just prior to my recent retirement, was given a large, beaver-tailed canoe paddle bearing the inscription “For your trip on the River De-nial;” to which I added, “Up the river and against the current.”

Rich was writing in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, which saw thirteen people wounded and six killed by a lone gunman, Jared Loughner, suspected of being mentally ill. He wrote about the general public’s and the media pundits’ swift focus on Mr. Loughner as the sole culprit of the horrible event, and about the collective desire for measures—out-patient commitment laws and tighter gun sale controls for persons with histories of mental illness—that would prevent a re-occurrence of mass assaults and bring “closure” for the victims, witnesses and the general public.

In short, Rich wrote, most folks arrived at the quick conclusion that it was the crazy guy who did it. And while Loughner certainly pulled the trigger of his Glock, the pundits and the public appeared to deny the impact of the ugly rhetoric coming from the political far right, including Sarah Palin’s bullseyes targeting Congresswoman Gifford plus 20 other members of Congress for removal from office. Indeed, many pundits, including Palin herself, denied any relationship between her and others’ provocative comments and Loughner’s murderous shooting spree. Later that same Sunday morning, I saw and heard Rudy Giuliani on one of the political talk shows pointedly reject any connection.

Why is it that most folks want neat explanations for phenomena that defy ready answers and are ultimately random and unpredictable? Persons who suffer from serious mental illnesses are as likely—or unlikely—to commit acts of violence as members of the general public. The prospect of violence by members of both groups increases when alcohol abuse is added to the mix. But Loughner wasn’t intoxicated when he shot nineteen people; he was apparently deluded.

We do know that persons who become paranoid, that is, who arrive at unique, idiosyncratic explanations for their personal life failures, are particularly open to theories that are highly emotional and non-rational in tone, and that attribute blame and promote opposition to highly visible public authority figures. Such as teachers, therapists and government and its representatives. Persons who suffer from paranoid schizophrenia live lives of apprehension and anxiety, and shift from withdrawal and isolation to clumsy and often frightening attempts at personal interaction in search of some relief. The best approach to take with such individuals is one characterized by kindness and acceptance, hard to do in the rough and tumble of everyday life. I always reminded my case managers who worked with consumers diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia to re-engage them and re-validate the importance of their relationship whenever they met.

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April is rightI've just learned that officials in the state of Arizona are launching an extensive Mental Health First Aid training program, which will begin with train-the-trainer sessions and then extend outward into communities across the state, where "ordinary people" can learn, through a 12-hour course, how to spot signs of mental illness in others and then, with understanding and competence, attempt to make a basic intervention that leads to treatment. The state contends that, despite funding limits, there are a lot of treatment resources available, but that the public needs to take a more active role in helping to refer those who need treatment, since many of those with mental illness, as well as those in contact with them, avoid available resources altogether.

This was "nicely" done. Naturally, politics appears to play a hand in everything these days. I can appreciate this opinion. I was surprised not to see fingers pointing to the American public in general, who all certainly noticed oddities about Mr. L, but did nothing to attempt to help him.Those people. the American public need to start owning up to their failure to step forward as American citizens, as civil and decent human beings and say, "Hey, this man might need some help...."

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Jack Carney

Jack Carney

Jack Carney, DSW, is a practicing social worker with 42 years of experience in the field. He is...