Last January, a shocking tragedy occurred in which 19 people were shot during a public meeting outside of a local supermarket in Tucson, Arizona, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. Viewers watched in horror as reporters described Jared Lee Loughner, who opened fire on innocent U.S. citizens while they took part in a democratic process.
If the U.S. put greater focus on the mentally ill, than this tragedy could have possibly been avoided altogether.
Giffords, who was shot in the head and almost fatally wounded, has announced a year after the shooting that she will be stepping down from Congress this week to focus on her recovery.
The shooting sparked a heated debate concerning gun control and heated rhetoric in politics about how our country treats the mentally ill. Although these issues were largely discussed for several months following the incident, a year later I hardly hear of any debate on these topics, and no changes seem to have been made.
It is upsetting that Congress has not worked together on gun control legislation. Also, it is absurd a closer look has not been by U.S. states on the identification and treatment of the mentally ill.
Since he was taken into custody, Loughner has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Both disorders led him to commit this heinous crime. There were many red flags in Loughner’s past, but nobody intervened.
During his time at Pima Community College, Loughner had five contacts with police for classroom and library disruptions. He made his classmates and teachers uncomfortable by frequently shouting incoherent statements and displaying hysterical fits of laughter at inappropriate times.
Not only did his teachers admit they hesitated to turn their backs to Loughner when writing something on the board during class, but many students feared for their personal safety as well. Several even went as far as dropping classes they shared with Loughner due to his bizarre behavior.
Loughner was later suspended after police discovered a YouTube video of him ranting about government conspiracies and declaring that college was illegal according to the U.S. Constitution. He withdrew a month later, and was told he could only return if a mental health professional agreed he did not present a danger to the school.
Also, according to court records, Loughner had two previous offenses. One was for the possession of the drug paraphernalia and the other was an unknown local charge. Both offenses were eventually dismissed.
On Nov. 30, 2010, Loughner purchased a 9mm Glock pistol from a Sportsman's Warehouse. Two months later on Jan. 8, 2011, Loughner purchased ammunition at Walmart. That day he used the pistol and ammunition he had bought to murder six innocent U.S. citizens, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, while additionally wounding 13 others.
The fact that Loughner, with his troubling background, was able to purchase a gun and ammunition is reason enough to raise great concern about our states'policies. More unsettling is how this man with a record of mental instabilities and criminal activities was never questioned, identified as potentially dangerous by officials or treated for his disorders.
According to the National Advisory Mental Health Council, an estimated 4.5 million Americans today suffer from severe brain disorders. Approximately 40 percent of those individuals are not receiving treatment, which results in homelessness, incarceration and violence. These lapses in our country’s treatment of the mentally ill are not to be taken lightly.
According to a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, “violent episodes by individuals with untreated schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness have risen dramatically, now accounting for at least 1,000 homicides out of 20,000 total murders committed annually in the United States.”
The illnesses themselves add to this crisis since disorders such as schizophrenia and manic depressive illness impair self-awareness and many people do not recognize that they are sick and in need of treatment. However, if psychiatric care is provided there is a 50 percent reduction in rate of violence among those treated for their illness.
Sadly, battles in courtrooms about individual civil rights have altered state laws to such an extent that it is now almost impossible to assist in the treatment of psychotic individuals unless they first pose extreme danger to themselves or society. Ironically, the first time they pose imminent danger to themselves or the public, someone has likely already been hurt or killed.
The public psychiatric care system is almost completely run by the states, and the question on their minds seems to be, “What will federal programs pay for?"rather than, “What does the individual need?” This type of thought process can no longer continue.
Gifford’s resignation due to her injury is a recent reminder of the importance of this issue. It is time that states allocated more money and focus towards the identification and treatment of the mentally ill in order to protect the citizens of our country. The data speaks for itself and we would be crazy not to do something about it.