What to make of Jared Lee Loughner’s reading list? His Internet rants and his political leanings?
Answer: not much.
In my other life, I’m a physician, and one who often deals with chronic mental illness. Obviously, I’ve never interviewed Jared Loughner, nor have I had the opportunity to speak to his friends and family. But given his age, his paranoid views, and his behavior, the suspect seems to be very mentally ill.
Media reports are a dime a dozen and, with such a hot topic, quality isn’t necessarily guaranteed. Still, consider this description of Loughner from the front page of the New York Times.
In a community college classroom here last June, on the first day of the term, the instructor in Jared L. Loughner’s basic algebra class, Ben McGahee, posed what he thought was a simple arithmetic question to his students. He was not prepared for the explosive response.
“How can you deny math instead of accepting it?” Mr. Loughner asked, after blurting out a random number, according to Mr. McGahee.
His writings and Internet rants have mentioned mind control, world currency, and his anger at the U.S. government because of control of “grammar.”
Some have speculated that he may have Schizophrenia. That seems reasonable speculation, though – again – all this is at a distance.
In the days since this tragic event, some emphasized the need to move past politics and blame. As hot as American political rhetoric has grown in the past years, Loughner seems driven by a chemical imbalance, and not some bad reaction to a radio show.
But let’s not quite excuse politics for the moment. Politics influences policy. And in this tragedy, we can take a moment to consider how we address chronic mental illness.
Consider that a decade ago, California college student Laura Wilcox was shot dead by a paranoid man who had refused treatment for his mental illness. The public outcry helped lead to the passage of Laura’s Law, which authorizes court-ordered treatment for individuals with severe mental illness who meet specific criteria.
As noted by the Treatment Advocacy Center, ten years after Laura’s death, the law she inspired has been implemented in only 2 of California’s 58 counties. And how does Arizona fare? “In the years leading up to the deaths in Tucson, Arizona distinguished itself as the second-worst state in the US for criminalizing mental illness and providing needed hospital beds,” according to this Center that was founded by the eminent psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey. Arizona, for the record, has just 5.9 psychiatric beds per 100,000, versus the recommended level of 50.
The Treatment Advocacy Center, for the record, emphasizes the need for all states to have laws that enable court-ordered treatment for certain mentally ill. A handful of states still don’t even have that. And, after decades of lobbying by patients and civil libertarians, many of the laws on the books are weak or not enforced. Incredibly, some of this lobbying – allowing mentally ill patients to go untreated – has been funded by taxpayers. My friend and colleague Sally Satel writes well on this point, see here.
Would any of this have made a difference in Arizona? At this point, we simply don’t know.
But if there is any good to come out of this nightmare, perhaps it will spark a local and national examination of the way we as a society handle serious mental illness.