The Giffords shooting has raised a lot of questions about how we treat the mentally ill. The alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, exhibited signs we would recognize immediately as constituting a mental illness but appears to never have been treated and was able to get his hands on a gun.
That's led to calls for a lot of different action, from concerns over why Pima Community College, where he attended classes, didn't mandate that he seek care despite expelling him for his odd behavior, to calls that we make it easier, again, to involuntarily commit people.
What happened in the '70s and '80s, of course, is that we unwound the completely unjust system of state hospital care, to which it was alarmingly easy to commit people whether they were truly mentally ill or not, without instating the kind of community-based care that would make sure everyone who needed treatment still got it. The result is that we have a social safety net for the mentally ill so loosely woven that it's easy to fall through -- and an alarmingly high number of mentally ill individuals get stuck, instead, in jail and prison because they're more likely to butt up against a criminal-justice system ill-equipped to handle them than they are to get proper treatment.
The college would possibly have served Loughner better if it had mandated mental health care and had facilities on campus to keep him from falling through the cracks. But none of this Monday-morning quarterbacking really takes into account how hard it is to deal with someone, be they a loved one or a student or a colleague, mentally unwinding before your very eyes. These incidents are no one's fault, but we would do better to respond as if they were everyone's responsibility.
-- Monica Potts
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