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.

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.

Loughner, it seems, never had that chance; or perhaps he did and refused it, or ignored it. I denied my illness for years. Perhaps he did the same. Nonetheless, there were clearly many people around him who knew that something was terribly wrong. At the moment, it appears that they did nothing, or worse. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but I cannot help thinking that, had someone, somewhere intervened, all of this might have been avoided. Obviously, there are hugely complicated issues involved in identifying and treating the mentally ill. Not least of them is that of civil rights. I do not know at precisely what point it is acceptable to forcibly treat someone for a mental disorder, or to confine them to an institution should it prove necessary. I do know, however, that inaction only invites far worse outcomes.  America has just witnessed the consequences of this writ large.

The truth is that mentally ill people are often regarded as, for want of a better word, disposable. One would not ignore someone who was suffering from cancer, or blindness, or pneumonia; but people do ignore, and worse, people who are suffering from mental diseases just as severe. If a man collapses in the street from a heart attack, people call 911. But if he laughs inappropriately or posts nonsense on the internet, he is considered a scary weirdo and ostracized. The result is that worst of all things: unnecessary suffering. All the more so because, properly treated, this suffering can be enormously reduced. I will not repeat the well-meaning lie that people with mental illness can lead a completely normal life. But they can lead a good life, and even a happy one.

Jared Loughner will never have this opportunity. He is now a murderer many times over. One of his victims was a nine-year-old child. There can be no forgiveness or redemption for such an act. Whatever the reasons, he has closed the book on a wasted life. His victims are now the rightful objects of our compassion. But we should not forget that this atrocity was preventable. If the proper action is taken, it is eminently possible to not only prevent future atrocities of this kind, but to help ameliorate the suffering of many who would never contemplate such a crime. This would, I think, be the most fitting response to the suffering Mr. Loughner has caused.