Last weekend, a tragedy of national proportions occurred in Tucson, Ariz. Twenty-two-year-old Jared Lee Loughner repeatedly fired a pistol into a group at a Saturday political rally organized by Representative Gabrielle Giffords of the 8th Arizona District. Six people were killed outright, including a 9 year old girl; 12 more were wounded, six seriously, including Gabby Giffords, who was shot through the head. We need to understand and act on this very sad event so that a similar event does not occur in another setting with other participants.
Based on CNN media reports and elsewhere, a picture emerges of Jared Loughner as a bright and talented teen who developed a serious mental illness over a protracted period of time dating from his later high school years. Allegedly, he had numerous run-ins with high school, community college, and legal officials, as well as with classmates. Over time, he also withdrew from family and friends, sometimes precipitously, and he spent progressively larger amounts of time in delusional thinking. A critical question can be raised as to why he never received appropriate mental health care.
Clearly, it will not be productive to point fingers at public officials, at fellow students, at friends, or at his family. We cannot know their personal motivations, or why they did not intervene. Rather, let’s look at what could have happened, but didn’t.
We must look at two things. First, how can we give people the knowledge and the skills to take action when they encounter a family member, friend, or acquaintance who is experiencing a mental illness? Second, how can we assure that appropriate and effective mental health services are actually available in the community?
Developing Knowledge and Skills
Before someone will feel secure and confident to intervene, including friends, classmates, teachers, family members or other community members, they must have an appropriate understanding of the signs and symptoms of mental disorders; they must know how to respond; and they must know what resources are available to assist them. Most people have received no training in any of these areas; in fact, most people are unaware of current mental health treatment resources available in their own communities. We must do something about this.
As part of health education in high school, every student should be informed about the signs and symptoms of mental illness and the types of helping responses that are appropriate. Clearly, appropriate responses will vary depending on whether a person is suicidal, depressed, violent, incoherent, etc. As a major part of this training, when in any doubt, students should be taught to reach out for help to other authority figures—teachers, school counselors, school principals, other adults, etc. Such training will do much to combat the culture of silence and inaction that frequently surrounds such encounters.
As part of undergraduate college education, and when entering a new job, including teaching or the police force, adults should be exposed to the principles and concepts of Mental Health First Aid. In addition, they should be informed about the mental health resources available in their own communities and how to find these resources in the future through use of the Web and other tools available locally.