Untreated Schizophrenia: An Ongoing Problem

  • My editor wanted me to write a SharePost about schizophrenia and violence in light of the Arizona shooting by Jared Loughner who shot Gabrielle Giffords and killed members of the public attending her appearance at a shopping center.  The youngest victim was a nine-year old girl.


    You might remember that three months ago I wrote Schizophrenia and Violence: Debating the Latest News that unleashed a torrent of comments by community members here.  You might wonder why the debate continues.


    First of all: The killer was not diagnosed with schizophrenia.  I don't want my good name tarnished by the likes of a criminal.  The photo of Loughner circulating with the Internet accounts of the crime show him grinning like he's the devil's spawn.

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    I resent that this guy is roped into the same diagnosis as me when it's not certain he has it and all the evidence points to the idea that he was a sociopath.

    I'm a pacifist, OK? Most people diagnosed with schizophrenia are. We're lovers not haters and wouldn't hurt a cockroach. You get what I'm saying, right?

    You don't need to shoot animals when you can feed yourself by going into a supermarket and buying a package of chicken cutlets for $10.  You don't have the right to kill people.


    The time has come to take on the NRA. Ordinary citizens have no reason to buy firearms. I'm going to get a lot of flak for saying that the right to bear arms is obsolete. 


    It's a different world from when the minute men had to protect themselves from the British, OK?


    The evidence points to the idea that the killer had a history of smoking marijuana.  The risk of violence in someone with schizophrenia escalates to 28 percent with a co-occurring substance abuse problem, according to studies.  Otherwise it is statistically lower than that of those in the general population who commit a crime.


    Should it turn out Loughner has schizophrenia this news account highlights the circular debate about the lack of mental health treatment and services in the U.S. for the great number of people who need help.  There's no parachute for the sickest among us and that is society's great failing: that a person has to commit violence before he or she will be committed to a hospital.


    What can be done to stem the tide of violence?  I fear nothing will be done or can be done.  First Virginia Tech and now this.  The comments posted online in response to the news accounts of the shooting do not offer a solution.  Some claim restricting gun sales is not the answer; others claim forced treatment is not the answer.  So what is the solution?


    Casual acceptance of violence as the trade-off for our civil liberties doesn't strike me as the answer either.  One person commented that even the professionals can't predict who will commit a crime: that some computer geek loners go on to create a Facebook empire and we can't tip off to the police every person we don't like because we don't approve of them.  Loughner had a history of holing up in the basement of his parents' house and surfing the Internet.


    Still: blatantly questionable behavior merits taking action, right?  When do we throw up our hands and pass the responsibility on to someone else and when do we get involved?  Officials at the college where the killer studied rejected him for further studies because of warning signs he exhibited.


    My heart is sick because of the innocent Americans who no longer live because Jared Loughner snuffed out their lives.


    Every day in my Google Alerts e-mail I see links to news accounts where a person with schizophrenia who is not in treatment and is psychotic has killed someone.  We can no longer ignore this rising tide of violence.

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    Hospital staff need to err on the side of caution and admit people instead of turning them away.  The fact that we have no guarantee who will kill and who won't mandates this caution.


    I'm tired of writing articles about SZ and violence.  In numerous states in the U.S. laws are on the books that require forced treatment for certain individuals with schizophrenia who have a history of violence, crime or homelessness.


    Laura's Law is in effect in California.  The Baker Act is on the books in Florida.  In New York State we have Kendra's Law.


    The New York State Office of Mental Health provided these statistics  in reference to Kendra's law:


    It reported 74 to 87 percent reductions in arrest, incarceration, psychiatric hospitalization, and homelessness rates in comparison to individuals' rates prior to their placement under AOT. (Sharon E. Carpinello, New York State Office of Mental Health, 2005)


    These laws work only if they are enforced.  Getting them enforced is an uphill battle for families everywhere whose loved ones are so severely sick that their delusions and hallucinations and paranoia cause them to isolate in their rooms or act out or turn to violence.


    I'm concerned most about the people living in the gray area: with schizophrenia or bipolar or another mental illness who aren't in treatment and could do so much better with medication.  Ordinary people who either choose to go without medication or who lack the awareness that they have an illness requiring treatment.


    Homelessness is not a choice.  Violence is not a right.


    The ACLU legislated the ticket out of hospitals for people diagnosed with SZ and other mental illnesses in the 1960s and 1970s, and then bolted once the ex-patients got their freedom.  Only they weren't free: without supports and services in the community, they were left on their own to get sicker and sicker.  So much for preserving an individual's dignity.  Thank you, ACLU!


    It's estimated that 1 in 5 Americans have a mental illness of some kind.  A great number of us go untreated and undiagnosed.  Some of us live 20 or 30 years in hell and some of us live the rest of our lives forever symptomatic.


    That last sentence alone should chill you because it's the truth.  It doesn't have to be this way.


    I would gladly give up some of my rights to be able to sleep at night knowing that the people who needed mental health treatment got it and that people in danger of committing violence were not allowed to buy guns.


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    We can't bring shampoo or bottled water in our carry-on bags at the airport because of the threat of terrorism.  Yet the reality is acts of domestic terrorism in the form of violence and fatal crimes are far greater and more routine.


    The time is now to take action.



Published On: January 13, 2011