Arizona shooting shows gap in state of mental health care

When 22-year-old Jared L. Lougher opened fire at a political meet-and-greet in Arizona earlier this month, he killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Democratic Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords.

When 22-year-old Jared L. Lougher opened fire at a political meet-and-greet in Arizona earlier this month, he killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Democratic Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords.

His horrendous actions sparked media discussion of many different issues. Most attention has been paid to political back and forth, controversial comments made by Sarah Palin, and of course, gun control and other issues specific to the U.S. and Arizona in particular. 

The state of mental health care in Arizona has also been called into question—with some even going so far as to say the shooting and others like it are the direct result of failed mental health policies. Certainly, many reports have described the shooter as ‘troubled’ and have speculated he suffered from a mental illness and left many warning signs leading to the attack which should have sparked concern and possibly even involuntary treatment.

Some reports have focused on recent cutbacks to mental health care in Arizona and according to Arizona’s National Alliance on Mental Illness, the state government has ignored requests for relief after 45 per cent of mental health services recipients were forced off the public rolls.

Arizona’s mental health care services are rated among the worst in the U.S. and many people have expressed both concern and disgust that severely mentally ill individuals can easily fall through the cracks.

Most are not violent, but are increasingly on the streets or incarcerated rather than treated—and in cases such as this month’s shooting, there can be tragic results affecting many.

Just a couple of weeks after the shooting, Arizona’s governor also announced she would suspend Medicaid in that state in order to balance the budget—leaving a quarter of a million low income people without access to health care. Obviously, this is very bad news for many with mental illness in Arizona.

In last week’s column I focused on mental health law here in our own country and how it is often interpreted too narrowly—leaving some vulnerable individuals on their own when their mental health has deteriorated significantly.

When government and health care services are not operating as effectively as they should be, what can we do to ensure our loved ones don’t miss out on treatment when it is necessary?

If you are concerned someone is struggling with a mental illness, you can watch for sudden changes in personality, thought processes or daily living. If your loved one shows a sharp decline in work or school performance, seems to withdraw socially, experiences extremes in mood, suddenly loses interest in personal hygiene or has an exaggerated sense of self, you may want to speak with someone.  

Recognizing a problem and advocating for appropriate care and help can go a long way toward ensuring a person is not passed over.

We can all be advocates for health care in our own region. Get informed about services that are available and about what the governments at all levels are doing and let your voice be heard as someone who stands up for appropriate, effective and accessible health care for everyone.

Paul Latimer is a psychiatrist and president of Okanagan Clinical Trials.

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