Becca and I have yet to comment on the Arizona Tragedy and its relationship to the failed mental health system in America. We are both deeply sorry for what has occurred in Arizona and our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims, the victim’s families, and the Loughner family.
Since the tragedy occurred almost two weeks ago I have watched, listened to, and read countless stories and reports on the incidents. Almost all of these reports touch on mental illness. I wanted to share with our readers two reports that I found very informative. One is a television program on CNN called State of the Union another is a radio program on NPR called the Diana Rehm show featuring Pete Earley, a NAMI father and author of Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness; Lisa Dixon, M.D., leading researcher and NAMI scientific advisory council member; E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., of the Treatment Advocacy Center and Dr. Ken Duckworth, NAMI Medical Director. Candy Crowley also spoke with Pete Earley on Sunday December 16 on her State of the Union Show on CNN along with two members of congress.
I encourage all of our readers to watch/listen to both of these programs but I would like to give you all a summary of the important highlights and points made by these professionals.
Pete Earley is an individual that has inspired and continues to inspire Becca and me on a daily basis. Earley’s son has schizophrenia. Earley points out that as a parent you are faced with some very specific challenges. Earley says: “We cannot sit back in the face of a tragedy like the one in Arizona and say ‘what is wrong with those parents?’ or ‘why didn’t they help their son?’ The truth is that the parents often do not have a lot of options with the mental health system currently in place in the United States.” We are in a state of profound public health crisis. It is difficult and sometimes nearly impossible to access mental health care in this country. We do not have a culture where it is accepted for people to get mental health care and we are closing hospitals and treatment facilities. In our country we are weak on prevention aspects of mental health but we know that treatment does work. However, we do not make treatment readily available to individuals who need it most.
Individuals who develop serious mental illnesses are often not aware that they have a biological process going on. A psychotic person does not know they are psychotic and he or she does not see their delusions as delusions at all but as reality. When you have a person that is not aware that they are becoming ill the family and the community must step in to help.
Pete Earley has been faced with many difficult experiences as the father of a child with schizophrenia. He has had to tell his son that if he won’t take his medications than he will not live in his house. His son decided he would rather be homeless than take medication. In another incident, Earley was forced to call the police when his son became violent. The police tazored his son and Earley was left with a son who blamed his father for the events. Earley points out that psychosis isn’t acting out in the way Jared Loughner acted. In fact, only 1% of individuals with a serious mental illness are violent. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depression are illnesses and there should be no shame in having these illnesses. The real shame should come from not treating these illnesses.
Dr. Lisa Dixon points out that we are unable to prove that a person is dangerous before they commit a dangerous act. However, we must look for risk factors that could cause a person to commit an act. Substance abuse is a huge risk factor and should be taken very seriously. Judgment is impaired with psychotic illnesses. Parents must follow their gut instincts and if they are waking up early in the morning feeling anxious about their child’s behavior then they should first speak with their general practitioner.
Dr. Torrey, President of treatment advocacy center, pointed out that the system has failed completely, we are dealing with a broken system and the tragedy that we saw in Arizona is the result of a broken system. The vast majority of people with severe mental illness are not violent or dangerous, only about 1% of individuals with serious mental illness are dangerous and these are often the people that need involuntary commitment. I feel that this cannot be said enough.
Dr. Torrey gave a plan for parents: First call your state mental health agency and research commitment laws in your state.
Next, look at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association website. Finally, research the National Alliance on Mental Illness and more specifically see how your state compares on their grading the states.
Finally remember: Mental Health is part of health, the brain gets sick and it is part of the process of health.
Become a partner to those with mental illness. It is an illness so it can happy to you. Listen to your loved ones and learn as much as possible about their illness.
You can watch the CNN State of the Union clips by clicking on the following link: http://www.cnn.com/CNN/Programs/state.of.the.union/
And listen to the NPR program by clicking on the following link: http://thedianerehmshow.org/audio-player?nid=13570