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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Panic over ‘vitriol’ obscures mental illness question

If you ask what caused 22-year-old Pima Community College dropout Jared Lee Loughner to take the lives of six people, critically wound a sitting U.S. congresswoman, and hurt more than a dozen others on Saturday, many will say it was Sarah Palin.

Palin and other Republicans are taking heat for using inflammatory rhetoric in political contexts. That rhetoric, the thinking goes, created the environment that pushed Loughner over the edge.

Political rhetoric has felt substantially nastier and more out-for-blood lately, especially during last year’s heated midterm election season. But claiming that Palin and her ilk drove Loughner to his act is unfair, and overlooks a likelier, more cogent explanation.

After seeing Loughner’s grinning mug shot on the front page of the paper or watching his incoherent, paranoid videos on YouTube, you’d be hard pressed to determine that he did not struggle with a severe mental illness.

His peers seemed to think so, as did his professors. Loughner had several run-ins with campus police at Pima, and classmates found his behavior disturbing. “”No one … would even sit next to him,”” Don Coorough, who took a poetry class with Loughner, told The New York Times. According to Coorough, Loughner called one woman in the class a “”terrorist”” after she read a poem about abortion.

Loughner was suspended from Pima when administrators found what they deemed to be a threatening mention of the community college in one of his videos. Loughner’s parents were told their son could not return to classes until he underwent a mental health evaluation. It is unclear if the evaluation took place; Loughner soon voluntarily withdrew.

Did Pima, faced with a young man displaying signs of mental illness and possibly violent tendencies, do enough? The school’s leadership probably did all they thought they could do under the circumstances. Could Loughner’s parents have done more? That’s more likely, but according to a neighbor, who spoke to The Associated Press, both are sick with grief and guilt, and no doubt feel terrible enough as it is.

In this country, especially in Arizona, land of rugged individuals with loaded guns, we’re squeamish about forcing people to get help they need when they don’t want to. At Pima, a student must self-report as mentally ill before he or she can access mental health services on campus. We’re so concerned with the rights of the individual, and of course with not getting sued, that sometimes the right thing to do — report behavior like Loughner’s and make him get help, whether or not he thinks he needs it — seems too invasive.

In fact, when someone is perceived as a danger to themselves or others, the county has rapid response services available. A crisis team, if called, can evaluate the individual; the police are another option in such a situation. If the individual is deemed dangerous or likely to become dangerous, crisis teams have options, including petitioning to have the individual put into mental health care services against his or her will.

But this process is complicated. It’s almost impossible to know what’s really going on in someone’s home or head, and one risks infringing on a person’s right to privacy. For Pima, the risk also involved possible lawsuits.

On top of that, even the most stringent measures don’t always work — most petitions to have a person involuntarily admitted to the mental health care system are dropped, especially if the person isn’t displaying “”emerging”” signs of violence — that is, in the process of threatening or engaging in violence. Reports filed because, as in Loughner’s case, someone seems creepy don’t usually get very far.

The point is Loughner’s actions have less to do with political rhetoric and more to do with a complex, bureaucratic system to help the mentally ill, and the fact that most Americans neither know about nor use what few options do exist. Pima, like most places, passed the buck. Loughner’s mental health was “”a family issue””; no one dreamed it would become an issue of public safety. Should they have considered that? Maybe. Would further action taken by either the school or Loughner’s parents have helped? Maybe.

But rather than try to limit free speech in the name of “”civil discourse”” (something everyone should have learned with table manners long ago), Americans should focus on, in the wake of this tragedy, our poor national response to those with severe mental illnesses. Mentally ill people by themselves aren’t dangerous; but left untreated and allowed to become more and more paranoid, isolated and angry, Loughner and the scores of people like him can become ticking time bombs.

— Heather Price-Wright is the assistant arts editor for the Daily Wildcat. She can be reached at

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