Aftermath of the Tuscon, Arizona Tragedy: Call for early intervention in serious emotional illness

HOUSTON, TX (January 10, 2011) – Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America mourns the loss of those killed during the horrendous tragedy on Saturday in Arizona. We extend our deepest sympathy to families, loved ones, friends and all who are affected by this dreadful catastrophe. Our thoughts, prayers and best wishes are with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and all those were injured for a full recovery. We are all deeply saddened by this extraordinarily horrific event.

The tragedy is another wakeup call for everyone. Details are emerging that Jared Loughner clearly had serious psychiatric difficulties dating long back, perhaps to High School. While several media reports suggest that he may have had a major mental disorder, the precise nature of what he might have had is still unclear. As details surrounding the tragedy continue to emerge, there are many potential lessons to be learned from this highly unfortunate event.

It is important to dispel several myths that exist in public perceptions of mental illnesses. Anyone can develop a mental illness. Mental illnesses are extremely common. About half of all Americans will meet the criteria for some type of mental disorder sometime in their lifetime, with first onset usually in childhood or adolescence. Mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorders are not a sign of weakness, but are real diseases of the brain. Delays in their treatment lead to a snowballing of suffering and decline in function. People cannot just “snap” out of mental illness; symptoms cannot be just wished away or controlled at will. Like in other medical illnesses, effective treatments are now available, both psychological and medical. Treatments can lead to recovery, facilitating productive lives. Timely assessment and adequate services for early symptoms go a long way toward preventing later, more serious problems.

Unfortunately, efforts to get Jared Loughner help had been made but were not successful; the reasons perhaps will become clearer with time. It is time to take a serious look at the lack of public understanding of serious psychiatric illness in youth, glaring inadequacies in mental health care, as well as delays in care, often for many years. Most people with mental disorders in the United States remain either untreated or poorly treated.The mental health system in the U.S is dangerously underfinanced and its infrastructure is crumbling. Many students with emotional difficulties on college campuses tend to not seek mental health services because of stigma attached to being diagnosed with a mental illness.

Negative portrayals of mental illness in the media are one major cause of stigma. Seriously mentally ill individuals can often put themselves or others in danger especially when they are acutely ill, and not in treatment. However, studies in general show that violence is actually no more prevalent overall among individuals with treated mental illness than the general public; the mentally ill are in fact more likely to be victims of violence.

The emotional toll for the survivors of the massacre and the families of the victims is huge, and the loss is incalculable. The immediate response to provide prompt grief counseling is laudable. Counseling to deal with the grief is critically needed in order to minimize long term negative consequences of the trauma.

In the aftermath of the Arizona tragedy, it is vital we emphasize the need for improving mental health services and early intervention for school and college campuses. There is no better antidote to stigma than education. Our high schools, colleges and universities need to be better educated about the signs of, and early detection for emotional disturbances, which can be nipped in the bud before they escalate into serious disasters. Proactive steps include disseminating mental health information at school orientation as well as training programs for staff, faculty, athletes, resident assistants, counseling services, faith-based organizations, sororities and fraternities. Security personnel and university operations and maintenance staff also need to be educated. Counseling centers need to be better staffed, and networked with state of the art capabilities of psychiatric diagnosis, preventive and therapeutic services.

Matcheri S. Keshavan M.D. is the Stanley Cobb Professor and Vice-Chair for Public Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry,
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and
Massachusetts Mental Health Center,
Harvard Medical School

Linda Stalters, MSN. Is Founder and Board Chair, Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America
Contact (240) 423-9432;

Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America (SARDAA) works to improve the lives of people with schizophrenia and related disorders.


  1. I agree with you 100%!

    Why don’t the the psychiatrists as a group get off their duffs and present a case before Congress? After all, Sirhan Sirhan, Hinckley and the U Bomber all had schizophrenia – if they had been helped with good resources, their crimes would not have happened. GV

  2. A good place to start is to make it mandatory for schools and colleges to become more aware of and then report mental illness to parents. When treated early, recovery efforts have a better outcome.

    HIPPA compliance could be assured by having students sign a release of information for reporting MI upon entering school.


    Pam Moore, PMHNP

  3. Linda,

    Thank you for your compelling insights on yet another tragedy caused by lacked of mental health care for deeply ill individuals. We in the mental health world do not say “what a jerk he was for doing that”. Instead we say “what a shame he did not get the help he needed”. Virginia Tech. comes immediately to mind as well as John Hinkley.

    Someone in my workplace is dealing with someone in her house who obviously has a mental illness but to her untrained eyes and ears, she thinks they are merely lazy and “a bitch”. I am trying to inform her of what might be going on but I fear it is falling on deaf ears. How do we help these people?

    Suzanne Lawson

  4. well said…..thanks so much for the forward…..I will be better prepared for tonite’s Friends and Family Support Call .


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