The Tragedy of Jared Loughner

The massacre that took place in Tuscon was a tragedy that shook the nation to its core.  As we mourn the loss of life and this attack on our democracy, I want to relate a story about a battle with mental illness that was very close to home and why I do that while Jared Loughner is not a victim of the shooting, he is a tragic story and a victim of our society’s inability to handle mental illness.

During my freshmen year at Reed College, I had a very good friend named Pete (not his real name). He was very funny, extremely laid back, and by far one of the coolest people that I knew.  Near the end of the year, Pete started to act a little weird, something that I wrote off as him being a little quirky. He became intensely interested in both philosophy and religion.  This being Reed college, it was not particularly strange as the one class that every Reedie took was a humanities course which covered those topics second semester, and it seemed that the majority of my freshmen class outside of the sciences was acting the same.  If I had paid closer attention, I would have seen went beyond a simple academic interest. Fortunately for him, he had friends that were more observant than myself, who noticed what was happening, and were able to step in and have his family contacted and he was able to be helped. What I did not know was that Pete had a severe psychopathology, and that midway through second semester he had stopped taking his medication and his grip of reality began to slide.  The main characteristic of this slip was a breakdown of basic logic.  He was able to develop extremely complex theories and ideas that to him made complete sense, but to the rest of the world was based on insane gibberish. Each idea itself was coherent, but the connections between them made no sense. More than anything, Pete was no longer himself.  Fortunately, with proper treatment he was able to get better and is currently doing very well.

Now Pete was lucky (or as lucky has he could be considering the circumstances), he had been diagnosed in the past, he had a family that knew what to do, and he had friends who noticed these changes in him and had the courage to try and help him.  Helping a friend slipping into a delusional state is truly a heroic act.  It required seeing the change in behavior as an illness, not as just becoming a jerk, and having the conviction to act on this. I also think that it was a testament to Pete that his friend’s noticed what was happening, as he was such an fun person to be around that people noticed something was wrong rather quickly, and that he had rightly earned loyal friends that they were willing to stick with him throughout. However, I have often worried about what would have happened if things had been different.  What if Pete had never been diagnosed before coming to college? What if Pete had not gone to Reed and made friends who would do anything for him? What if Pete came from a background that did not respect psychological and psychiatric treatment of mental illness? Its hard for me to imagine Pete ever taking a life, but there was a very brief moment at the height of his episode when I looked in his eyes and I did not recognize him.

Now this brings us back to Saturday.  Jared Loughner seems to be a man who went to the edge of mental illness.  Looking at some of the things he had written online, such as;

If I have my civil rights then this message wouldn’t have happen [sic].

In conclusion, my ambition is for informing literate dreamers about a new currency… in a few days, you’ll know I’m conscience[sic] dreaming.

Firstly, the current government officials are in power for their currency, but I’m informing you for your new currency

These are statements of someone for whom all logic has broken down.  I am not an expert in psychology, but I do know that these are the ramblings of someone who has lost touch with reality and seem to be of a similar kind of logic to that of Pete (although far less eloquent, Pete is pretty damn smart). The information of what actually drove Jared is still coming out, but I have to ask similar questions to those I wonder about Pete. What if Jared’s family had tried to treat him? What if his friends had tried to help him? It may not have mattered, as Arizona does not include mental illness in its background checks for firearms and that once someone turns 18, it is very hard to put them into treatment if they are not willing. However, maybe just maybe, things could have ended differently.

While the actions of Jared Loughner were villainous I hope people pause to consider that he may not have been a villain himself, instead he may have been a very sick young man living a world that was unable to treat him and protect him and the community from a terrible mental illness that robbed him from himself.

Many have been calling for civility to be the lesson we learn from this moment, but perhaps what we should look at is how we deal with the mentally ill.  While some are calling for forced institutionalization of the mentally ill (I actually heard Ed Schultz say this on MSNBC… sorry, no source), I believe that there are some less draconian steps that could be taken to help prevent a recurrence of something like this.  First and foremost screening and treatment for certain forms of psychosis such as schizophrenia must be a required element of any health insurance plan.  For those who are not insured, this tab must be picked up by either the municipal, state, or federal government.  Second, we need education on the subject.  We need high school students across the country dragged into assemblies and taught what to do if they think one of their friends is going through an episode, and how to help them.  Not having knowing how to help makes it far easier for people to turn their backs and wash their hands of it.  I am sure there is a lot more that can be done, and I hope that the leading intellects on mental health and ethics are able to get together in our capital and come up with some ways of making sure that something like this can be prevented in the future.

I wrote this article a few days ago and sent it out to a friend who was involved with the incident above to ask get an opinion on whether it was appropriate.  While I was waiting for a response, I decided to not publish it because I did not feel it was fair to Pete.  However, the response I got was that my friend had not thought about Tuscon from this light. From that moment, I knew I had to publish. This is the first time I have ever published anything truly personal about myself or my friends and it was not easy but I hope it will do some good.

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