Capitol Idea: After The Arizona Massacre, The Issue Almost No One Is Talking About But On Which (Hopefully) We Can Agree

As President Obama lifted the hearts of the nation Wednesday night, I find my own heart lifted.

He’s entirely right to move past assigning blame for the massacre in Arizona, and I feel called, as the president asks, to live up to the expectations of Christina Taylor Green, the little 9-year-old girl who was murdered while coming to meet Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

(I say that, it must be noted, as one who earlier pointed my finger squarely at Sarah Palin for fueling political ill-will leading up to the tragedy.)

The president noted, of course, how the shootings have touched off a national debate on a host of related issues, which he says includes “adequacy of our mental health system.”

In fact, I’ve seen very little broader discussion of that point, compared to the debates over gun control and the potential political motivations behind the attack.

That’s unfortunate. Because on a deeper level, it doesn’t matter whether you believe alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner was a deeply unstable young man driven by political vitriol, or rather he simply was a deranged individual with a gun.

Liberal and conservative — left, right, and center — understand Loughner to have been profoundly mentally ill.

One portrait this week goes so far as to paint the 22-year-old Loughner as a “‘textbook’ case paranoid schizophrenic.”

In truth, it may be months, or years, before we know the full extent of Loughner’s mental state.

But in one of the few statements that directly addresses the mental health implications of the Arizona tragedy, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) issued this one.

In it, Executive Director Michael Fitzpatrick begins asking some salient questions, such as:

•Was there a diagnosis?
•What is the full medical history?
•When were symptoms first noticed?
•Did family members receive education about mental illness and support?
•Did the person or family ever seek treatment—only to have it delayed or denied?
•Was the person seen by mental health professionals? By whom? How often?
•Was treatment coordinated among different professionals?
•Was the person prescribed medication? Was it being taken? If not, why not?
•Was substance abuse involved?
•What may have triggered the psychiatric crisis?

Acts of violence among the mentally ill are the exceptions, not the rule, Fitzpatrick says.

“They are a sign that something has gone terribly wrong, usually in the mental healthcare system,” he says.

“Nationwide, the mental health care system is broken. Arizona, like other states, has deeply cut mental health services,” he adds. “Arizona has a broad civil commitment law to require treatment if it is needed; however, the law cannot work if an evaluation is never conducted or mental health services are not available.”

It is also a truth, sadly, to say Jared Lee Loughner is hardly unique.

He is but the latest madman to generate headlines which for years have been filled with the news of similar murderous rampages.

Loughner was preceded by the deranged teens who led the massacre at Columbine High School more than a decade ago, the gunman who more recently killed more than 30 at Virginia Tech — to say nothing of the killings that touch American cities and towns every day.

Improved access to mental health counseling and services usually is seen as offering a benefit or generosity to those who seek them out.

Perhaps that’s the wrong way to look at it.

Maybe we should turn it around and begin to look at enhanced access to mental health treatment as a sound public safety investment to protect ourselves.

Wider mental health availability certainly would be no panacea, but the fact is that the dead and wounded in that Tucson parking lot could have been any of us, at any time.

We surely want not to be the next ones to meet another Jared Lee Loughner, and certainly we don’t want any more 9-year-old little girls to be shot dead during a trip to a grocery store.

Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article was first published as After The Arizona Massacre, The Issue Almost No One Is Talking About But On Which (Hopefully) We Can Agree on Blogcritics.

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