Like many, over the past few days I've been balancing the urge to consume non-stop media coverage of the tragedy in Tucson with the need to do other things in life.  The events have transfixed a nation because they have multiple meanings:  Have political battles gone too far?  What should we do about gun control?  More existential issues, too, like cosmic injustice in the death of a child born on September 11, 2001.

All of these questions and considerations are important.  But one of the least considered questions has been:  What about mental health care?

As I've spoken with friends and colleagues who work in the mental health field, I've heard everyone say that it's clear that Jared Lee Loughner is struggling with mental health issues.  Laurie Flynn, executive director of TeenScreen National Center for Mental Health Checkups, makes a particularly articulate argument for viewing this tragedy as connected to mental health in a blog post.

About Loughner she says: "We don't know if he has a mental illness or if he ever received a diagnosis, got the help he needed or accepted help that was offered.  What seems clear is that a troubled adolescent grew into a deeply disturbed young man." 

Flynn goes on to write: "Unfortunately, the discussion does little to further our understanding of mental illness or our efforts to offer mental health care for all people who need it.  Rather, this terrible tragedy and others like it invariably reinforce a false perception that most violent crimes are committed by the mentally ill.  Not only is this wrong, but it feeds the stigma that people with mental illness are inherently violent.  This misinformation contributes to keeping mental health issues in the dark, and keeping parents from seeking help for their teenager, who may just be beginning to exhibit symptoms."

Flynn's concern is my concern, too.  As glad as I would be to see the national conversation shift from blaming political divisiveness to looking at mental illness, I fear that the way this discourse tends to go will end up overly simplifying a complex issue.

Sometimes, out of tragedy comes an opportunity to focus on prevention.  A tragedy can be the tipping point for an issue that is difficult to confront.  Will this be one of those times?

Copyright 2011 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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