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Common Knowledge
When the street is the clinic
By John Zipperer

David Brooks says mental illness, not rhetoric, led to
tragedy in Tucson
photo: Kris Davidson
Anyone with a family member suffering from mental illness didn’t need the tragic shootings of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson last month to know that there is a problem with how this country handles the mentally ill.

David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist and political commentator, in his January visit to The Commonwealth Club sought not only to put a damper on the charged rhetoric about the possible political origins of the shooting, but he also pointed to its more likely cause.

“There’s been a lot of punditry and commentary around what happened in Tucson, but if we start with the evidence, with what little we know about Jared Loughner, the kid who allegedly committed this thing, we know from his online writings that he has had an obsession with mind control,” said Brooks. “You see in the writings the struggle of a man trying to control his mind. He created these videos, and the last video he created is called ‘My Final Thoughts.’ If you watch those videos, you see a man who is trying to create what he calls a ‘currency,’ which is a language for controlling thoughts. You see him sort of vaguely understanding that he is having trouble controlling his own thoughts, and then making accusations about the government controlling our grammar. [It’s] all about the struggle to control thoughts.”

Brooks noted that Loughner’s friends said they had cut him off in recent months because of his disturbing behavior. “So we see from all of the evidence that the root cause of this was a young man possibly suffering from mental illness and possibly schizophrenia, and not practicing politics as it’s normally understood.”

Yet Brooks said that much of the post-shooting commentary wasn’t about looking at that evidence. Instead, people shouted at each other about how shouting at each other is bad political discourse. It has not been American media’s finest hour.

“I’m not sure there’s a larger political meaning to this horrible thing,” he concluded. “But if there is, it’s a function that we in the media have to pay much greater attention to psychology and psychological issues and less to politics – not everything is explicable by the normal political logic.

“But the second thing is that we as a society have to pay greater attention to the treatment of the mentally ill. We have a system (and part of the system was created here in California during the Reagan governorship and has spread outward) giving people suffering from severe mental illnesses the choice to control their own destiny. Often that means they end up on the streets; a large number of them end up in jails; 99 percent of them are not violent in any way, but 1 percent or so are violent.

“I think we have to ask some fundamental questions. The most important question is: How do we allow a kid, who is widely perceived as mentally troubled, to get access to guns? The second is: How do we think about involuntary commitments and involuntary treatment? Have we erred too much on the side of giving those people individual choice, and do we need to shift more to protect community safety?”

Tucson “is about mental illness and guns,” agreed Dr. Gloria Duffy, The Commonwealth Club’s president and CEO. Political rhetoric is nothing new, and sometimes it’s hotter or cooler than it is today, but she doesn’t think heated political discourse led to Loughner pulling the trigger: “Because people who have mental illness are not rational actors, their behavior does not relate to rhetoric. They don’t need rhetoric to be inflamed or do things that are not rational.”

Duffy has been an outspoken advocate of improved mental health policies. In fact, she was instrumental in making sure the Club asked each and every presidential candidate who visited us in the 2008 campaign if their health care plans would cover mental illness the same as they covered other health issues. When I spoke with her the week after the Tucson shootings, she seconded Brooks’s call to examine what should happen “before we place constraints around someone who is or may be mentally ill” as well as the criteria for people who have access to guns.

Someone who has more than four decades of experience in highlighting mental health public policy is former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. In August, she told a Commonwealth Club audience about her heartbreak at seeing the health care legislation she helped get passed during her husband’s presidency abandoned by his successor – the same president cited by Brooks for his gubernatorial legacy.

The saddest part of that legislative failure might be that a presidential commission under George W. Bush reached much the same conclusions that Carter’s team had reached 20 years earlier about the failures and needs of America’s mental health systems.

But Carter had good news, too. “During the past two decades, we’ve learned so much about the brain and the power of individuals to recover, even from major mental illnesses,” she said in August. “We have excellent knowledge of effective treatments and good models for delivering them. We have early intervention strategies to prevent more serious problems later in life. We are even beginning to understand how to promote resiliency in children at risk and those struggling with the most serious disorders, teaching them to be able to meet adversity and to live good lives and not let it affect them all of their lives.”

John Zipperer is vice president of editorial and media at The Commonwealth Club
of California, E-mail:

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