Loughner and How America Treats Its Mentally Ill
They are not, of course, in any way responsible for what he did. Loughner made a choice, however deranged, to commit a meaningless act of violence. No one forced him into it, and no one but him should be blamed. The way Loughner was dealt with by others, however, may allow us to pull some kind of good out of his crime.
This is because, for better or worse, this incident has become a national talking point in the United States. For the most part, this conversation has consisted of ghoulish attempts to score political points against one side or the other of the American partisan divide. This is not the conversation America should be having. Not only because it is debased and irrelevant, which it is, but because there is a far more important and pressing topic to be discussed: how American society deals with the mentally ill and, especially, with the untreated mentally ill.
Put simply, all of the shrieking accusations about violent political rhetoric and the hatred prevalent in American society are beside the point. No change in the political atmosphere of the United States would have prevented Loughner’s crime. Had his illness been identified and treated earlier, however, it almost certainly would have.
I can speak from personal experience about how badly America deals with its mentally ill. My parents, through no fault of their own, were at a loss as to how to deal with my disorder. They simply lacked, as most parents do, the knowledge and experience required to do so. Those who did have that knowledge and experience, however, proved no more effective. I attended one of the most well-funded and liberal public school systems in America; the type that endlessly tells itself and its students how compassionate and helpful it is. Their reaction to my illness, however, was one of, at best, indifference. Only one man, a social worker to whom I will always be grateful, took an interest in my case, and whatever small progress I managed to make was due to him. The rest of the teachers and administrators regarded me as a slacker and a drug addict (I was neither), and treated me accordingly. With that one exception, I never received a single expression of sympathy or understanding from any of them. I still have a distinct and painful memory of being yelled at by a teacher for not attending a test. When I told him that I had suffered an anxiety attack so bad that I could not breathe, he yelled at me further and threw me out. His behavior was disgusting, of course, but it did not surprise or shock me at the time. I know now that it should have.
The situation did not improve in the job market. Drifting through life for a time, I went through a series of jobs that almost all ended the same way. At some point, the social and professional issues caused by my untreated disorder would end with me being either fired or quietly asked to leave. This is precisely what happened after the incident I recounted above. My boss informed me that my co-workers were afraid of me, and I should either change my behavior or leave. By that time, I had despaired of change, so I left. It was not, in fact, until I moved to Israel and attended university that my disorder began to be properly treated. Israeli universities have psychiatric help readily available for students, and when I saw the warning signs again, I availed myself of them. This time, people were willing to help, and thankfully they succeeded.