The Terrible Thing in Arizona and Why the Media Is Missing the Point
Filed under: Medical Conditions
There was a terrible thing that happened in Arizona last weekend. A terrible thing.
The person who caused that terrible thing to happen appears to suffer from some type of serious mental illness. Things this person had written, which were nonsensical and bizarre, spread like wildfire, thanks to their easy accessibility on the Internet. Former friends and classmates shared stories of odd behavior. Then, like clockwork, many in the media began tossing around words like "crazy people" and "nuts" and "lunatic" and "madman."
Did they talk about the mental health system? No. Did they share statistics on mental illness and violence? No. Did they think twice about how their words might prevent people from seeking help? No. The media never give a second thought to furthering stigma.
They speak as though violence and mental illness are directly correlated. They aren't. As Vaughan Bell explained in his piece on the Arizona shooting on Slate.com, " ... your chance of being murdered by a stranger with schizophrenia is so vanishingly small that a recent study of four Western countries put the figure at one in 14.3 million. To put it in perspective, statistics show you are about three times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike."
I'd add that you are probably more likely to be killed by lightning than hear a reporter correctly report a story on mental illness, but ...
I've been thinking a lot about what I would write about the terrible thing in Arizona. The murder of innocent people on a sunny day. The death of a promising young girl born just three days after my own son. It became difficult to find the right words, though, with my head swimming with broadcast accusations and finger pointing.
Then I read a post from Heather Armstrong at her blog Dooce. Heather put into words EXACTLY what's been going through my own mind. Not political parties. Not even guns. Not anything but sadness, and Heather's words. She writes, "If any good dialogue comes out of this mess, please let part of it be about mental illness and access to treatment." I had been so confused by all the talk of politics and party discourse that I almost lost the idea that the root of this story is mental health. Heather brought it back to me.
I don't know exactly what brought Jared Loughner to do the terrible thing and rob the world of so many beautiful lives. It seems mental illness may have played a large part, but other things may have been involved as well. While I know that the overwhelming majority of mentally ill people do no harm, a very small few with severe illnesses can if they're not being helped.
I would hope that if people learn anything at all, it's that we have a crappy mental health system in this country, and that's being nice. While pockets of greatness and amazing psychiatric professionals and organizations certainly exist, many people do not have access to them.
For those living in rural or poor areas, there aren't enough health care providers of any stripe, much less mental health professionals, nor are there enough services. The Huffington Post reported that in Pima County, Arizona, where the shooting occurred "... more than 45 percent of its mental health services recipients [were] forced off the public rolls" last year.
Some people do not have mental health insurance coverage. If they do have it, it's often limited, with the insurance company -- and not a trained psychiatrist or therapist -- deciding how many mental health visits a person should have. In fact, insurance companies' limitations and controls over mental health have gotten so out of hand that many of the best mental health professionals in our country no longer accept insurance of any kind.
On top of that, the stigma that exists -- the stigma that is carried along so willingly by the media -- makes people afraid to seek whatever help they can get. What if someone thinks they're a horrible person for having a mental illness? Could they lose their job? Their friends? What if this is used against them in some way? If they say they are suffering, will it ruin their lives? One has to wonder whether Jared Loughner's family sought help for him, or if these same thoughts crossed their minds as well and prevented them from doing so.
As Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times columnist and author of "The Soloist" (think Robert Downey Jr. in the movie based on the book -- that's Steve), wrote this week, "What the Arizona tragedy ought to spark is not a hysterical conversation about politics, but an honest conversation on the need for earlier diagnosis and better education about mental illness."
Not only an honest conversation, but an informed conversation that's not peppered with harmful words and overblown rhetoric. A conversation that recognizes the sorry state our mental health system is in. People need help. With it, most of them can be well.