Posted on January 28, 2011
The shootings in Arizona have transfixed our nation. When a tragic and incomprehensible event like this happens, our natural impulse is to try to understand why.
In the search for explanation, people have quickly focused on the “mental illness” of Jared Loughtner. That is a monumental mistake, whether or not he is ultimately diagnosed as having a mental illness. Mental illness did not cause this tragedy. Tens of millions of people in this country live with mental illness. Their lives are seriously affected by the illness; their hopes and dreams are often put on hold, and the impact on family and friends is great. They struggle to get help and go on with their lives.
Though it is difficult to reach a consensus on the actual number people living with serious mental illness in this country, it is estimated to be at least 40 million. If a handful of people out of forty million commit a terrible crime, it doesn’t make sense to “explain” it on the basis of mental illness. People with mental illness are no more likely to commit crimes of this nature than anyone else, and like everyone else, they are morally responsible for their actions.
The unselfconscious linking of mental illness with the shooting is not just an innocent mistake, it does great harm. It perpetuates the stigma and fear associated with mental illness. It makes it even more difficult for people to seek the help they need, and it interferes with the kind of help and community support that is often most needed.
In our experience, if mental illness can be invoked at all, the underlying problem is that the lack of mechanisms to engage marginal individuals leads to their social isolation. In this instance, it’s easy to point a finger at Pima Community College, but colleges are an expression of our society. While great strides have been made toward the social inclusion of those with physical disabilities, sadly, the same can’t be said for those with psychiatric disabilities or behavioral problems.
Dismissing troublesome students or ignoring unruly strangers until they fade into obscurity only increases their alienation and creates a downward spiral of isolation, precisely when social connection might make all the difference. Most often, this results in an unfulfilling, unrealized life for a troubled individual and a quietly desperate situation for his or her loved ones should they choose to remain involved. And rarely, it leads to a shattering tragedy of national proportion.
Engaging people whose behavior currently drives them to the fringes requires us to remake our society. How can we do it? Education and awareness initiatives from an early age? A reallocation of resources to establish more and better services? Innovative thinking about interventions that support people to become truly part of their communities? We think it will take that and more to prevent, not only these sensational crimes that capture the public imagination, but the vastly more frequent, private tragedies lived out by those who struggle their whole lives in the shadows.