Salvaging A Legacy From Tucson

I was moved as I watched CNN’s Candy Crowley dedicate the entire hour of her State of the Union show on January 16 to a discussion of mental illness in the wake of the recent shootings in Tucson.  The show highlighted how a once respected and well-liked guy changed in high school.  In the years that followed, various people had some information about his disturbing behavior, but no one put it all together.  I couldn’t help but think of the gunman’s parents and the millions of other families with a loved one who suffers from a brain disorder.  Many of them probably recognized that the gunman’s symptoms pointed to schizophrenia—a debilitating but treatable and manageable illness.

Schizophrenia does not mean split personality.  While the term does mean “split mind,” the “split” refers to the breakup of the components of one’s personality—thinking, feeling, relating, etc.  Neurotransmitters in a schizophrenic’s brain do not connect properly, and schizophrenics try desperately to make order out of their disjointed thoughts.  Sometimes they make connections where none exist.  But it’s rare that this exhausting search for order ends in violence.  Schizophrenics are no more violent than the average person.  Their struggle to try and control their own mind is more likely to cause them despair than lead them to harm someone else.

Some people point to outside stimuli like overblown political rhetoric or brutal videogames as the reason someone’s illness turns violent.  Respectful civic discourse may produce better government and ratchet down one’s adrenaline, but it’s not a medical treatment for schizophrenia.  A more peaceful culture may benefit us all, but it too is no treatment for mental illness.

We can start to improve things, however, by removing the stigma and neglect that those with mental illnesses suffer.  Education is the first step.  Schizophrenia first manifests itself in late adolescence or a person’s early twenties.  Intervention should begin then as well, because with each psychotic breakdown one’s brain is damaged further.  All too often the police are the only contact an ill person will have with a public agency because they are the ones who are called when a schizophrenic becomes delusional or suffers from hallucinations.  Sometimes this leads to involuntary treatment, which by law must normally be voluntary.  But without proper training, police intervention can make a mental health situation spiral out of control.

Getting and maintaining medical care can be trying.  Oftentimes the sick person doesn’t know or believe they are sick.  Families don’t know where to turn.  One free resource is Alameda County’s Family Education Resource Center (FERC) at 888-896-3372.  There is also a 24-hour ACCESS helpline at 800-491-9099.  Providing more access to care, more information, and more understanding is a concrete, practical way to create something positive from the tragedy in Tucson.

Originally published in the Alameda Sun

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