Tucson aftermath and mental illness

There’s been much debate since the Tucson shootings about the mental health of Jared Loughner. Many people want to know, who is to blame for his state of mind – the community or only himself? Also, what new laws governing mental illness and the involuntary detention of individuals should be on the books to prevent this kind of tragedy in the future? But here’s another question: what is our role in people’s mental health?When I was growing up, I remember my parents being part of the Saratoga County Mental Health Committee, a group that sought to address mental health issues in the community. This was back in the early 1970s, when such issues were taboo even to mention in public. It took courage for them to step forward. Since then, as a society, we’ve come a long way on these matters. But the recent Tucson shootings offer a kind of up-to-the-minute Rorschach test for each of us on mental health issues. I’ve listened as some people have said that only Jared Loughner himself is responsible for his actions. It is the individual alone, they say, who must burden the blame. There are others who argue that the very nature of society played some role, if only to create a larger context in which such incidents take place. Indeed, there is the belief among some that our society is only as healthy as the least among us.

Beyond this debate loom various legal questions. Why didn’t Pima County Community College, which had to confront Loughner’s disruptive and threatening classroom behavior, do more than simply kick him out of school; why didn’t they stay connected to him and track his well-being? And why didn’t anyone else who could see Loughner descending into the abyss approach authorities? Debates over appropriate mental health laws will no doubt continue – and they should.

But, in the meantime, I keep wondering about our own roles in people’s mental health. Here, I am not raising this as some abstract “public issue,” but as something that is woven into the fabric of our daily lives. When debates get framed, as this one has, mostly in terms of “who is to blame” or about “legal actions,” something essential gets lost. A sense of humanity is lost.We get lost.

Such framings immediately entangle us in determining what someone else should have done, or how a particular institution might have failed. And yet through these frames, if we are not careful, we are able to put distance between ourselves and others. We are permitted to keep ourselves at arm’s length from various events – never letting them touch us, perhaps never to involve us.

I have vivid memories as a college student of working for over a year at the county’s mental health crisis center. It was not something I sought to do, but the psychiatrist who ran the facility met me while I attended Skidmore College, and asked if I wanted to work there. I accepted his offer. What I remember most is how close each of us can get to the edge of where life becomes too much to handle. This very challenge is happening daily to children and to people who have lost their jobs, their homes, or a relative; where people need some additional support from one of us, a nudge to seek out professional help, a shoulder to lean on, a guiding hand and a loving voice.  Sometimes this is in the spur of the moment, in other cases over time.

As the debate continues over how the Tucson event came about, and what our institutions and leaders need to do in response, I want to keep front and center the role each of us must play in each others’ lives. This is something I hope we always keep in our sights.