Michael J. Fitzpatrick: The Arizona tragedy and mental health care


Published: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 11:07 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 11:07 a.m.

We share the sadness of other Americans over the Tucson, Arizona tragedy 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 19 other persons who were wounded.

Rep. Giffords is a NAMI friend who has served as co-chair of the NAMIWalk in Southeast Arizona and has supported our missions of education, support and advocacy.

When tragedies involving mental illness occur, 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?

Michael J. Fitzpatrick,

Executive Director,

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

NAMI is an organization of individuals and families whose lives have been deeply affected by mental illness.

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