Can the Tucson tragedy be understood as caused by Jared Loughner's mental illness? Is mental illness by definition violent? Are prisons today America's residence for mental illness patients? Did the gun culture in Tucson play a role in the recent incident? How should we as Americans respond to the tragedy that shocked the whole nation and forced us all to pause?
The judge in Jared Loughner's case quickly ruled that he was a danger to the community and would be held without bail. The taxi driver, who took Mr. Loughner to the site where he carried out the mass murder, said that he noticed nothing unusual about him. The manager at an Animal Care Center where Loughner had volunteered said that he showed concern for animals but had to be dismissed because he would not follow rules for animal safety. With his shaved head and smirk smile, Loughner comes over to many as weird, but does what is known about him at this point indicate that he is mentally ill? Does the mass killing itself show that he suffers from mental illness? Is there a link or bond between mental illness and violence?
Violence is certainly the expression of some mental illnesses and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, is an example of this linkage. Most psychiatric patients however are not like Ted Kaczynski. Most mentally ill patients are not violent. Violence however increases substantially when mental illness is combined with certain social, cultural and political factors.
Dr. James F. Drane
The social, cultural and political environment in which a person lives is important. A human being is an inner self and his or her surrounding environment. This is true universally and justifies careful consideration of the socio-cultural-political circumstance in Arizona and around our nation. Hostile, hateful, angry discourse, and an us vs them surrounding environment does not promote freedom. It promotes violence and encourages violently disposed persons to express their inner feeling in outer behavior.
There is a lesson for all Americans in the Tucson tragedy. The tragedy is a symbol, a physical reality that carries added meaning. In looking for an explanation of this tragic incident, we cannot ignore the relationship of this violence with the broader American culture. Multiple cultural factors contribute to violence, including easy access to guns.
Between the Ted Kaczinski example of violent mental illness and most mentally ill persons who are not violent, there are many variations of violence and mental illness. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (down and up moods) have higher rates of violence compared to the general population. But family history, personal tragedies such as divorce or death of a loved one, poverty, homelessness and substance abuse, all contribute to higher incidences of violence. This makes it difficult to separate out the influence of a particular mental illness on violent acts. As Jared Loughner gets more attention in the media, more and more people are likely to conclude that mental illness alone made him violent. This however is not the case. Other factors, especially the broader surrounding environment contribute to violent acts and must be factored into any prudent explanation.
An individual history of acting violently creates a personal character inclined towards habitual violent behavior. Another important contributor to violent behavior is substance abuse. Drug and alcohol abuse contributes to violent behavior with or without a mental illness. With drug and alcohol abuse, thinking and judgment are impaired, without a mental illness. Substance abuse also intensifies dispositions toward paranoia and grandiosity and these dispositions contribute to violent behavior.
Some people today who are aggressive or antisocial would not be thought of as mentally ill, but would certainly be more disposed to violence. Young people too are more likely to act violently than older persons. And men are more likely than women to do violent acts.
Poverty, homelessness, loss of employment, divorce, being a victim of violence, are all more likely than mental illness to cause violent behavior. Psychiatric therapy and medications can help with many of the above mentioned conditions but this does not mean that the persons are mentally ill. Violent persons could all be helped as well with better education, exercise and community or Church involvement.
Even if Jared Loughner is finally diagnosed as mentally ill, his behavior will not be explained or able to be excused. Some mental illness is violent but not all. Some violent persons can be helped with psychiatric therapy but not all. The important issue raised by the whole Tucson tragedy is whether it expresses something about the broader socio-political-cultural environment in Tucson and throughout the U.S. That is something that we all need to pay attention to.
James F. Drane
Russell B. Roth Professor of Bioethics
Edinboro University of PA