Tuesday, January 11, 2011

NAMI NJ responds to the Arizona tragedy


As a New Jersey community-based organization representing those who are affected by mental illness and their families, we are deeply saddened by the recent tragic events in Tucson, Arizona, and extend our sympathy to the families of the six individuals who died. We pray for the recovery of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the 13 other persons who were wounded.

As the community deals with the trauma and grief of this incident, it is essential to understand the nature of mental illness — and to find out what went wrong.

The U.S. Surgeon General has reported that the likelihood of violence from people with mental illness is low. In fact, “the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small.” Acts of violence are exceptional. They are a sign that something has gone terribly wrong, usually in the mental healthcare system.

Nationwide, the mental health care system is broken. Arizona, like other states, has deeply cut mental health services. Arizona has a broad civil commitment law to require treatment if it is needed; however, the law cannot work if an evaluation is never conducted or mental health services are not available.

In specific cases such as this, authorities and the news media should seek to objectively determine every factor that may have contributed to the tragedy—so that we can act on lessons learned.

Was there a diagnosis?

What is the full medical history?

When were symptoms first noticed?

Did family members receive education about mental illness and support?

Did the person or family ever seek treatment—only to have it delayed or denied?

Was the person seen by mental health professionals? By whom? How often?

Was treatment coordinated among different professionals?

Was the person prescribed medication? Was it being taken? If not, why not?

Was substance abuse involved?

What may have triggered the psychiatric crisis?

NAMI NEW JERSEY is a source for education and support about mental health for those affected in New Jersey and is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of those affected by mental illness and their families. Through our support, education and advocacy work with families and individuals, we know all too well that mental illness can affect all families regardless of religion, race, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, age, or immigration status.

While the facts of this case are still to emerge, we urge families and individuals to note and take action when signs of deteriorating mental health are present. Mental illness is treatable, and crisis situations can be prevented when the community becomes aware of resources to access.