Jared Loughner And The Sorry State Of Mental Health Care, Part III
If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend Steven Taylor’s follow-up piece to my post about the gaps in our mental health care system that have been revealed by the case of Jared Lougnher. Along those same lines, The Washington Post reports today on what could have been done for Loughner, and notes that something could have been done if only someone had taken a little initiative:
Under Arizona law, any one of Jared Lee Loughner’s classmates or teachers at Pima Community College so concerned about his increasingly bizarre behavior could have contacted local officials and asked that he be evaluated for mental illness and potentially committed for psychiatric treatment.
That, according to local mental health and law enforcement officials, never happened.
“To the best of our knowledge, he was never and is currently not enrolled in our system,” said Neal Cash, president of the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, which provides mental health services in Tucson and Pima County for the state. While most of those it serves are on Medicaid, Cash said anyone diagnosed with a serious mental illness would be in its system.
Any person in Arizona can petition the court for a psychiatric evaluation solely because a person appears to be mentally ill and doesn’t know it.
“When people appear mentally ill or show some instability, how do you get them to [mental health] resources if the system doesn’t know those people are out there?” Cash said. “Our crisis line is manned 24/7. Anyone concerned about his behavior could have called at any time.”
In this respect, Arizona appears to be different from most other states where such a procedure either does not exist at all or where the process for having someone committed even for a short period of evaluation by mental health professional is far more cumbersome. So, then, the question arises, why didn’t anyone do or say anything? I don’t know that you can expect Loughner’s classmates, most of him seem to have only had a passing acquaintence with him, to take this kind of initiative (assuming they were even aware that the law allowed them to do it), but what about his friends, his family, or the school that kicked him out because of his clear psychological problems:
“In retrospect, they dropped the ball,” said E. Fuller Torrey, a local psychiatrist who researches schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and founded the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington. “At least they got him off campus, so they can say, ‘We’ve discharged our responsibility, we’re protecting our students.’ I suppose they could argue, ‘We don’t have responsibility for the larger community.’ ”
Some of Loughner’s professors said they were concerned about his nonsensical answers on tests, geometric doodles, disruptive outbursts in class and disconnect from reality, that they contacted their superiors. Philosophy professor Kent Slinker told the online magazine Slate that Loughner was “someone whose brains were scrambled.” Slinker said that he even discussed getting help for Loughner, but that school policy was for students to go of their own volition.
But Torrey, Cash and others said that is not the case under Arizona law. It’s just that people either don’t know it or are “reticent” about reporting mental distress, Cash said.
That’s certainly part of it, I’m guessing, and the general lack of public knowledge about mental illness along with the fact that most people are just plain uncomfortable talking about mental illness to begin with contributes to a general attitude of not wanting to get involved. In the college’s case, though, I think there’s more involved. We’ve seen many examples over the years of colleges sweeping students with mental health issues under the rug, or merely expelling them rather than getting them any real help. Virginia Tech was obviously the most prominent, and tragic example of this, but there have been others, not to mention the cases we don’t know about. Rather than reporting Loughner as permitted by Arizona law, it was easier for Pima Community College to simply expel him, both because it got rid of the problem quickly and because it avoided the possibility of exposing the school to litigation for making the report. They obviously knew he was a man with psychological problems, otherwise they would not have made his return contingent on a certification from a psychologist that he was not a danger to himself or others, but it was easier to just say “it’s not my problem.”
So, instead of it being the school’s problem, Jared Loughner became a problem for everyone on Saturday.
There’s a saying associated with the War On Terror that received a lot of publicity when the Times Square bombing was thwarted thanks, in part, to a pair of quick thinking t-shirt salesman who saw something suspicious. If you see something, say something. If someone had done that with Jared Loughner six months ago, this tragedy might have been averted.