I think everyone has a reaction to the event that occurred in Tucson, Arizona on January 8, 2011.  Twenty -two year old Jared Loughner shot 19 people, six fatally!  His actions prematurely took lives, shook the nation and caused government to pause and take notice.  I’ve bore witness to a range of emotions – disbelief, anger, horror, hate, shame and even forgiveness.   And some want to exact revenge, a scary notion.  But what should we do?

It’s not an unfamiliar story.  Remember April 16, 2007, the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung- Hui Cho, and Sergeant John M. Russell who shot service members at a stress clinic, to name a few.  As the stories unfolded, we found out that these single instances that captured our attention were in fact moments in a chain of events, including the significant existence of an underlying mental illness.  This most recent alleged gunman, Loughner, might be Schizophrenic; a mental illness that can present itself as threatening or non-threatening.  This kind of illness is complicated and can easily be misconstrued.  The thing is, generally people knew something wasn’t right, might have tried to intervene or not, and might not have been able to pinpoint exactly what was wrong.  The lesson learned is that mental illness, if goes unidentified, unattended or unchecked, sometimes, people can get hurt, even killed.  Fortunately, it can be managed if one could access and maintain consistency with mental health services.   

So we’re dealing with two issues, gun access and mental health services.  And it begs the question should people with mental health issues have access to guns?  This is a serious debate that warrants an urgent outcome.  I’ll focus on mental health and services therein.   It’s a subject that can impact families, friends and communities etc.  As mentioned previously, identifying mental defect isn’t always easy and if it’s acknowledged, there can be a stigma attached.  This stigma can stimulate helpfulness or render people helpless.  Hopefully, if the latter happens then a guide might be useful.  Some may be aware of the signs and/or symptoms of mental disease so for those of you who don’t know you can refer to this short list:

–          Change in mood

–          Change in behavior

–          Change in sleeping pattern

–          Change in eating habits

–          Change in functioning

–          Change in social well being

It’s imperative to keep the individual’s normal disposition in mind so that a difference is notable and severe enough to be a cause for alarm.  A more comprehensive assessment, a component of service delivery, is also advised.

To this end, mental health services exist on a continuum that ranges from outpatient treatment (office visit) to home-based treatment to inpatient treatment (hospitalization), all of which can be augmented by a variety of tools like psychological evaluations and psychotropic medication.   But getting these services may require some know how.  It can start a couple of ways, either by calling your local mental health center or consulting with your Primary Care Physician (PCP) or pediatrician.  There are some circumstances where a history of mental health ‘events’ may necessitate consultation with a dedicated court Magistrate in order for services to be rendered.  Other resources that may be useful are The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and if you reside in the Northern Virginia area, you can contact Group Therapy Associates for a consultation.

It’s important to know that whether you’re the individual or a bystander, if you’re not sure, consult.  Second, you’re not alone.  Third, muster the strength to seek help and support.  Fourth, if you’re not personally diagnosed, try not to judge those that are afflicted and exercise compassion.  And lastly, mental illness is here, so early access, intervention and follow up is key.

Llouana Harper, LPC, NCC