January 10, 2011 - Our hearts go out to Representative Giffords, her staff, and the residents of Tuscon who were victims of the tragic shooting this past Saturday.
And while the details of the shooting and the history of the suspect are still to be determined, early information suggests that investigators may discover evidence of untreated mental illness.
It would be a mistake to conclude that incidents such as this are characteristic of people who have mental illness. In fact, these events are very rare. Studies show that having a mental illness, in itself, does not increase one's propensity to commit serious violence; other factors come into play, including co-occurring substance abuse, trauma and, perhaps in this instance, today’s vitriolic political climate.
Over the past decades, a handful of similar tragedies—at Virginia Tech, in the New York City subway and elsewhere—raised immediate concerns about mental healthcare in this country. These concerns soon translated into efforts for quick-fixes, typically, efforts to enact laws making it easier to commit people to psychiatric hospitals or to court-order outpatient treatment. The fact that Arizona has had such laws in place for many years points to the hollowness of these solutions. The plain truth is that America’s mental healthcare system is horribly broken and horribly underfunded. And across the nation, budget cuts continue to eviscerate community mental health programs that reach out to vulnerable individuals and put them on a path to recovery.
Our hope is that this time we will come together in the wake of tragedy in a different way. Rather than stigmatizing people who have mental illnesses with false stereotypes or pursuing laws that try to use courts to compensate for gaps in basic services, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law urges a meaningful effort to address the core issues here. The nation’s system of community mental healthcare, now struggling to provide even late-stage crisis services, should be equipped to ensure that early, effective assistance is available to people who need it.
Media reports have highlighted Representative Giffords’ haunting, cautionary words about today’s heated political rhetoric. Another concern of Representative Giffords’ merits equal attention: as a state legislator and, more recently, on the Hill, Representative Giffords has a long, distinguished record of advocating for accessible mental health services and fighting the discrimination that burdens people who have mental illnesses.
We at the Bazelon Center are grateful to Representative Giffords for her leadership in advocacy for mental health issues. We hope and pray that this tragic act brings at least some kind of silver lining; necessary mental health system reforms that she would be proud of.