Loughner and How America Treats Its Mentally Ill

When I was twenty years old, I smashed through a plate-glass tabletop with a hammer. It scared the hell out of my co-workers and, I must admit, it scared the hell out of me too. I did not do it for any logical reason. It was an eruption of raw emotion, mainly rage and frustration. The immediate cause was nothing less innocuous than hitting my thumb with a hammer. Almost immediately after it was over, and I looked down at the shards of glass and felt the eyes of other people on me, I felt nothing but confusion and shame. I had no idea what had come over me. But I knew that it was a sign that something was wrong. Very wrong. Looking back on it now, the fact that I was suffering from a form of mental illness is so obvious that I wonder how I managed to miss it, or deny it, at the time.

My illness is a relatively mild one, a form of chronic depression marked by occasional hypomanic episodes. It is somewhat more severe than ordinary depression, but a great deal less severe than bipolar disorder and other, far more terrifying diseases of the mind. It requires no more than two pills a day to keep it relatively under control, and the side effects, while irritating at times, are negligible. In many ways, I count myself lucky. It is perhaps for this reason that I found myself, somewhat against my will, identifying with Jared Loughner, the young man who shot and horribly wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others last Saturday.

I don’t wish to be misunderstood. I have no sympathy for what Loughner did. Even those suffering under severe mental illness can usually distinguish right from wrong. I could, even when it was at its most severe. I imagine Loughner could as well. Unless he turns out to have been completely delusional, he is morally responsible for what he did.

Nonetheless, I confess to having some sympathy for him. Perhaps this is because I recognize so many of the things we are now reading about his life: the youthful intelligence done in by academic failure, the social isolation, the inappropriate public behavior, the sudden bursts of emotion masquerading as ideas, the incomprehensible obsessions with bizarre subject matter, etc. More than anything else, however, I recognize the response of others. For the most part, people appear to have reacted to Loughner’s illness in the worst possible ways: indifference, contempt, and punitive action. His peers, teachers, parents, indeed everyone in his life, appear to have regarded him as, at best, a somewhat frightening nuisance. Even those who recognized his mental illness seem to have used it as nothing more than an excuse for getting rid of him.

This may prove to be untrue. There may have been those who tried to get him the help he needed and failed. Denial is a powerful thing, and I doubt there are many sufferers from mental illness who have not refused help or gone off their medication at some point in their lives. I did both quite a few times. At the moment, however, it seems that Loughner was simply discarded by most of the people who knew him.