Decoding the Signs, Averting the Violence
The issue of mental health is again in the headlines with the tragic, and senseless shooting of Gabby Giffords and others in Tucson, AZ. This latest news is all too familiar. Someone goes on a shooting rampage and the media, mental health experts and law enforcement struggle to find lessons in the aftermath. While some commentators believe that right wing rhetoric incited the young man responsible, it is now becoming clear that he suffered from some type of mental disturbance. Severe mental illness, on its own, is not intrinsically linked with violence. In fact, a 2009 analysis of nearly 20,000 individuals concluded that increased risk of violence was associated with drug and alcohol problems, regardless of whether the person had schizophrenia. Two similar analyses on bipolar patients showed, along similar lines, that the risk of violent crime is fractionally increased by the illness, while it goes up substantially among those who are dependent on intoxicating substances. In other words, (as Vaughn Bell wrote in Slate.com) it’s likely that some of the people in your local bar are at greater risk of committing murder than your average person with mental illness.
That being said, mental illness affects an estimated one in four Americans every year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Planned reductions in state funding are only likely to increase demands on emergency rooms, schools, nursing homes, foster care services and charities that provide assistance to the homeless. The cycle of hospitalization, homelessness and incarceration continues with our jails acting in a significant number of cases as (inadequate) mental health facilities.
Too often, however, people seem to ignore the obvious signs of serious mental illness. Student Seung Hui Cho demonstrated worrying signs of instability prior to taking the lives of 33 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. Within hours of this latest shooting in Tucson, evidence was coming in from around the Internet of the disjointed thoughts of Jared Loughner. In the wake of this tragedy in Tucson, Arizona, isn’t it time that we had a campaign that raises awareness of the signs of serious mental disturbance?
The “If You See Something, Say Something” anti-terrorism campaign was originally put in place by the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2002, but adopted by the Department of Homeland Security. The campaign has been effective in engaging the public and key frontline employees in identifying and reporting “indicators of terrorism, crime and other threats,” Homeland Security officials say. We need to create a public awareness campaign to educate people on the signs and symptoms of serious mental illness – the type that can lead to violence. Obviously there are challenges but without fostering paranoia, there are warning signs that everyone could be more aware of. In addition to better gun control, an education campaign could make the difference between life and death. So if you see something, say something.
We hope Representative Giffords and all those injured make a full recovery, and offer our condolences and sympathies to those who died in this tragedy. I am on the board of Weston United, a non for profit organization that provides supportive housing for people who are mentally ill and homeless. If you are interested in finding out more, please visit www.westonunited.org
Susan Towers, Co-founder, OMHU