Friday, January 14, 2011

The Shootings in Tucson and the Tragedy of America's Mental Health System

The tragic shootings a week ago in Tucson, which left six dead, and thirteen wounded, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was hosting a "Congress on the Corner" event, has raised important questions for the nation.  The debate began with a focus on the tenor of our national conversations, but as we learned more about the situation, we discovered that this was a more complicated issue than maybe we first thought.  It turns out that the suspect in custody was driven more by "inner demons" that were rather disconnected from political discourse.  As the President noted Wednesday evening there are issues beyond discourse that need out attention -- including accessibility to guns and our mental health situation. 

I use the phrase "inner demons" advisedly, but I think it has some value, because it reminds us that what happens internally, in our minds, can lead to tragic and destructive events.  I appreciated the fact that the President didn't call Jared Loughner a madman or even call him crazy.  It's easy to use those words, but they are extremely pejorative, and they don't help us understand the root causes of tragedies like that of last Saturday.  I realize that some will think I'm letting this man off too easily by putting the question in the context of mental health.  But, to give this issue a bit of theological context, I'd like to suggest that we put into our hearts and minds the encounter that Jesus had with the "demon-possessed man" from the region of the Gerasenes.  Remember that this man lived alone, ostracized by his community, because of his violence.  But instead of imprisoning the man, or condemning the man, Jesus freed him from his demons (Luke 8:26-39). 

Jesus brought healing to this man, and thus to the community.  He restored this person not only to his "right mind," but also to his community.  My sense is that Jared Loughner will spend the rest of his life in prison, but will he find healing?  Will we let him find healing?  And the question then is -- how does this healing occur?

In the context of the Gospel, Jesus acted as an exorcist.  In today's context, healing is likely to come as a result of attending to a person's psychological disturbances, which often means addressing chemical imbalances that can lead to all number of problems, including paranoia and violence.    I believe that evil exists in this world, but more often than not it is systemic and not personal.  But people can get caught up in the context of evil, and if they are suffering from mental illness, that can have tragic consequences.   What we know so far is that this young man exhibited aberrant behaviors, and yet no one knew what to do to help him until was too late.  Couple this failure of the system, with another system that makes semi-automatic guns available to people who are suffering from mental illness, and you have a problem. 

So, what have learned from these events?  I believe that one important thing that we've learned is that we are, as a nation, ill-equipped to deal with mental illness.  Maybe less so than we were a generation earlier.  We have more drug therapies and counselors available, but too often these therapies are beyond the reach of those most affected. 

It's important that we remember that most state mental hospitals were closed years ago, and those who resided in those institutions were often put out on the streets.  There may be good reasons for doing this, even humane reasons -- for one need only  watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to get a sense of the abuses that were often present in these intuitions.  But even as these institutions were being closed, we didn't think ahead far enough about the consequences to provide alternatives.  As a result, we're discovering that many mentally ill people, who once would have been institutionalized, end up either homeless or in prison.  

So what should we do?  Remember that we're living in a period of budget deficits, and mental health spending is often the first line item to see cuts.  It's important to remember too that many if most insurance plans don't cover mental health solutions, especially counseling.  You can get meds from your MD, but access to regular counseling is hard to come by.  It would appear that the Health Care Reform law will help resolve some of these problems, but what if this law gets undermined or over-turned either by Congress or by the courts?   Who will pay the cost then -- not only for the individuals who suffer from mental health problems, but society itself?   

My hope is that before the events of last Saturday begin to fade from our memories that we will have a conversation about the way we deal with mental health issues in our nation.  There is great urgency to this conversation, before we find ourselves dealing with another Jared Loughner type act of violence.     

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