Care of mentally ill may be Arizona tragedy’s lessonWritten by Quintin Ellison
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There are many issues to discuss in the wake of the tragedy in Arizona that left six dead and 13 wounded.
The ugliness of the political discourse in this nation is one. We took that subject up last week in news article and column form in The Smoky Mountain News, and I suspect we’ll probably explore this particular topic in greater depth in the future. Gun rights might be another subject to eventually tackle. Though I, frankly, find this particular angle as a potential outcome to the Arizona shootings less than convincing. Perhaps because I own firearms, my family owns firearms, and I grew up in these mountains where almost everyone I knew growing up had guns in their homes, too.
Having acknowledged my tepid interest in the debate concerning gun ownership, I do concede controls of a sort might be worth discussion — such as whether we should truly allow the insane easy access to weapons such as a semiautomatic handgun with a high-capacity ammo clip.
Which ties neatly into what I believe is the single most important lesson being offered in the wake of the Arizona shootings: the consequences of denying the mentally ill the care and monitoring required. The potential outcome of such neglect has been spelled out in graphic, heartbreaking detail. We can ignore what happened in Arizona only at great peril. And, if we choose to do so, I think it should be openly acknowledged that a repeat of what happened there could easily happen elsewhere, and probably will.
Just making sure we’re all on the same page: does anyone have the smallest doubt, simply by looking into the alleged Arizona killer’s eyes in that creepy mug shot taken a short time after police say he gunned down so many, that this young man is seriously mentally ill?
I’ll give a nod of approval to the community college he once attended. After Jared Lee Loughner exhibited bizarre, scary behavior, they apparently acted properly and promptly. Officials expelled him, and agreed they’d let the 22-year old back into school only if he underwent a mental health evaluation (and, I assume, passed it, if one “passes” such a thing).
Then what happened, though? There the storyline of attention paid to Loughner seems to end. At least until all the dead and wounded piled up outside a Tucson grocery store.
In case you’re curious, North Carolina doesn’t offer much support to the mentally ill or their families these days, either. In the name of savings, the state largely dismantled a not-that-great-to-begin-with system a few years ago. Here’s a bit of what I wrote in 2008 in a series of investigative articles on the state’s mental health system for a local newspaper chain. We were examining North Carolina’s then new (translation: cheap) approach to helping the mentally ill:
“Reform, to hear proponents tell it, would empower people with choices. No longer would patients be shut out and shut up when it came time to decide on treatments. Now they would get to pick from a virtual smorgasbord of choices, all conveniently located in their hometown or county.
This, taxpayers were told, would save money – lots and lots of money. Millions, in fact, because more people would be treated in their own communities instead of being admitted to one of the state’s four psychiatric hospitals.
Who could argue with empowerment and saving money? Actually, a few people did, but not effectively enough for anyone in power to heed their warnings.
A mental health system that has wasted, not saved, millions of tax dollars. And worse, many of the state’s most vulnerable residents are unable to obtain adequate treatments. For those people and their families, the price has been incalculable.”
It is time — it’s past time — to face honestly what we are potentially unleashing with our neglect, and in the name of saving pennies. Take a look again at the massacre in Arizona.
Granted, most of those with mental illnesses do not buy guns and start shooting — God knows, I’m not saying that, so please don’t think I’m stigmatizing those who deserve compassion and help.
What I am saying is that we have a responsibility, a duty, to care for and monitor those who potentially pose a danger to themselves and others. The economic costs of doing so be damned — we need a mental-health system in place that works.