Like virtually everyone else in the U.S., I was stunned to learn of last Saturday’s violence and murders. It touched me personally, as I had spent 18 years in Tucson, where my wife had been a TV anchor. My wife and I know Congresswoman Giffords and several shooting victims. In 2006, my wife ran against Gabby Giffords for the Democratic nomination to the House seat, which Gabby ultimately won—now three times. I was also intimately involved in mental health services in Tucson and Arizona, so the nature of the crime and presumed mental illness of the alleged shooter struck home.
What can we learn from this horrible, seemingly senseless tragedy? Probably, laws should make it easier to detain someone for a psychiatric examination if they are suspected of being mentally ill. And it should be easier to force a mentally ill person to undergo prescribed treatment. But even though Arizona’s mental health funding is anemic and decreasing, Arizona’s laws in this regard are exemplary. In fact, I will advocate for changing Pennsylvania’s statutes along similar lines. Apparently and sadly, the system in Tucson failed to intervene in time in this case. Better resources and greater public awareness of when and how to intervene when a young man appears so disturbed might make a difference in the future.
I was appalled by the rancorous and violent tone of the 2009 debates on health care reform. The vitriol has continued, increased, and extended to matters of budget, immigration, and much more. Vigorous debate and exchange of ideas is a healthy part of democracy. But thinly veiled threats and incitement to violence feed the fires of those with aggressive impulses and poor self control—including people with psychosis. As a society, we must find a dividing line between censorship and fostering harm.
Finally, there is the matter of gun control—the “third rail” of politics. A psychotic, homicidal person can hurt, maim, and kill with a blunt instrument or knife—but not as many people as quickly as with an automatic or semi-automatic firearm. A Glock pistol with an enlarged magazine can wreak havoc, killing a little girl and creating instant widows and widowers. I pray for Congresswoman Gifford’s recovery and for all the victims and their loved ones. It is so very, very sad.
- Alan J. Gelenberg, M.D.
Editor, Biological Therapies in Psychiatry
Professor and Chair, Psychiatry, Penn State University
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry