This guest post is by Jennifer Stuber, an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. She is the founder of a broad coalition of people concerned about improving news reporting on mental health and illness (www.mentalhealthreporting.org).

The real cause of the tragedy in Arizona has not been named. Pundits, advocacy groups and journalists have missed something fundamental. When Jared Loughner’s behavior deviated from the norm, he was shunned and rejected by his college, local employers, acquaintances and friends. In short, his community did not care or did not know how to deal with him.

It is not known for certain if Loughner has schizophrenia, but signs point in that direction in addition to evidence that Loughner was using drugs that can aggravate symptoms of mental illnesses. The reaction in this Arizona community toward a person with a mental health problem is not unique. A lack of societal acceptance and awareness of mental illnesses is pervasive throughout our culture and is an important lesson from this tragedy that is not being discussed.

Recent research has found nearly 50 percent of the public is unwilling to work closely with someone on the job with depression. The percentage of people associating mental illness with violence has doubled since 1956 despite clear evidence that the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are never violent. A study of people living with mental illnesses found that 60 percent reported being shunned and avoided.

Is it any wonder then why people don’t want to accept mental illnesses and seek treatment for them when symptoms of mental health diagnoses first emerge?

This same lack of societal awareness and acceptance of mental health disorders contributes to the underfunding of mental health treatment systems and prevention efforts. In a society that accepted and understood mental health problems, we could expect college administrators and police officers to work hand-in-hand with a mental health system when crises emerge. For example, in this case, the college told Loughner he needed to get a mental health examination that said he was not a danger before he could return to class. There appears to have been no follow through by the college, any offer of mental health counseling by the college or any expression of empathy and understanding to Loughner at a time when he appears to have been suffering.

The reaction of Loughner’s community when his concerning behaviors began is the opposite of what should happen when someone is in crisis from a mental illness.
Mental health crisises can be mitigated with empathetic, holistic, around-the-clock community-based mental health services and with the support and understanding of family and friends. Peers who have similar experiences can help to break down the fear and denial and hold hope for those in crisis.

It would be impossible to suggest any sympathy or excuse for Loughner’s action. But, people with mental illnesses are often isolated, alienated, treated as other, and seen as the lowest of the low. These reactions occur even though people with mental disorders are not to blame for their illnesses. Somehow this needs to be acknowledged if any meaningful changes can come about from this tragedy.

From some reporting, the public is left with the impression that underlying symptoms of an undiagnosed mental illness were the primary cause of this horrific event. The truth is symptoms of mental illnesses alone are not a trigger for violence. It’s the context in which experiences of mental illnesses occur that can contribute to rare events of violence.

The ultimate irony of the news coverage of the Arizona shooting is that it contributes to the very lack of societal awareness and acceptance that allows tragedies to unfold. Going forward, journalists can help minimize the damage by avoiding overt uses of sensationalism that are pervasive in many of the news accounts. For example, words used to describe Loughner or his behavior as “erratic,” “bizarre,” “crazed,” and “unhinged” are sensational and don’t convey anything but damage to people living with mental illnesses. The use of the term ‘paranoid schizophrenic’ dehumanizes all people living with mental illnesses. It is inaccurate and disrespectful to define people by a diagnosis (in this case, a diagnosis does not exist, but news reports have speculated Loughner has schizophrenia).

Journalists can also play a role in increasing societal awareness and acceptance of people with mental illnesses by doing more in-depth reporting on mental health not just as it pertains to this story, but to treatment and recovery in general. For instance, most people do not realize that after 10 years, the majority of people diagnosed with schizophrenia are much improved or recover completely. The onset of schizophrenia typically occurs in early adulthood and the earlier mental health intervention occurs the better the outcome. This is the kind of information that promotes societal acceptance and awareness of mental illnesses that can help mitigate future crises.

In a sense, we all bear some responsibility for the tragedy in Arizona. The question is: What will we do about it?

Jennifer Stuber, Ph.D.
University of Washington