The Newtown Tragedy: Why Have So Few Things Changed Since Gabby Giffords Was Shot?

I wish we didn’t need to keep thinking about the topic of how gun violence seems to be so intertwined with how we as Americans think about, or don’t think about, mental health and the treatment of mental illnesses in our country.

I wrote the following article at Politics Daily after former U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and many others were shot in Arizona not quite two years ago. Sadly, in light of the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, it’s still as apt today. I thought I would share it again and hope that as the conversation surrounding gun violence and ownership is at the front of our minds, that we will also revisit discussions about how to acknowledge and treat mental illnesses. While nothing has been decided conclusively at this point about any diagnoses the shooter Adam Lanza may have had, when something like this happens, we have to think about the things that could have spurred someone to commit such a horrific crime. Potential mental illness must certainly be one of the topics to think about.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords didn’t know she had a stalker, though she knew that she was being threatened after her Tucson congressional office was vandalized in the wake of her vote in favor of health care reform. She didn’t know that several people had expressed concern about the mental stability of her constituent Jared Loughner, who had, according to reports, become obsessed with her to the point of writing notes about his plans to hurt her, or worse. While some people were worried about Loughner’s interest in guns and his potential to harm others, apparently no one was able to do anything about those concerns other than to have him expelled from his community college.

As the story has unfolded about Loughner, it’s been hard for me not to think about my own experience being stalked. Not in the same way that Giffords was targeted, but stalked all the same.

Many years ago, I was a young broadcast journalist in a small Midwestern city. One winter day, a bouquet of flowers was delivered to my apartment with a card announcing it was from an anonymous admirer. I thought that was nice. Turns out it wasn’t. Shortly after that, I started receiving anonymous notes from this “admirer,” ones that became increasingly threatening because he thought I was ignoring him (at that point I still had no idea who this person was) and not reciprocating his feelings. To make a long story short, I used my best reporting skills to uncover the stalker’s identity, I informed the police. But neither they nor my employer viewed the person as a serious threat. There was nothing that could be done, I was told, since the stalker was “only” sending letters and I hadn’t actually been hurt.

After a while, the letters stopped, but then started coming again after I had moved from that city. I don’t know how he found me that time, but my reports of threatening letters continued to go ignored until, one day, this man’s family told the police he had started threatening some of them as well and had been diagnosed with a mental issue that was finally being treated.

I was extremely lucky that, at last, this person was getting help before he was able to hurt me or anyone else. During those years of being stalked, I tried to take it all in stride. I pretended to stay calm, being aware of my surroundings constantly and doing my best never to be out alone. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried that some night this person I didn’t even know would find me and that he’d have a gun.

I am telling this story not to ask for sympathy or compare my situation in any way to what happened in Tucson. I am telling the story for this reason — pretty much nothing has changed in almost 30 years when it comes to how authorities and those in positions of responsibility react, or don’t react, when someone with questionable mental stability starts acting in a threatening manner. Combine that with the fact that pretty much anyone can get a gun, and that’s a recipe for continuing disaster.

In the days since the horrific tragedy in Tucson, many questions have been raised: Should Giffords have had some type of security at her meet-and-greet event? Should all members of Congress rethink safety issues at constituent meetings? Will Congress increase security measures on Capitol Hill? All fair queries, but it feels like we’re thinking of only one side of this coin — the side that calls for more police, more screening, and more guns. Little is being said about the other glaring issue: Could this whole incident have been prevented if someone had done more when questions were raised about Loughner’s mental state and his potential to harm others, especially in a state where it’s almost as easy to buy a gun as it is to buy a latte at Starbucks?

Even though at least one of Loughner’s professors and some of his classmates have said he acted quite strangely and threateningly in class — and they acknowledged their fear that someday he would show up in the classroom with a gun and start shooting — there was little they could do to make him get help to prevent that possible scenario. As someone said on one of the talking-head shows, if Loughner had shown up drunk in class a variety of times, someone would have gotten him into rehab. Yet even as people who shared a classroom with Loughner feared for their lives, the only thing the school could do was suspend him and bar him from campus.

At least one lawmaker is speaking out about making this moment a turning point in how we view the seriousness of mental issues and why we should also turn our focus to mending the social safety net. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio has been reminding us on shows like Rachel Maddow’s and “Morning Joe” that, while it’s all well and good to consider increased levels of security, we also have to find a way to provide mental health services to those like Loughner before they become part of another national tragedy. Obviously, it will take a lot more than discussing the dearth of mental health services to prevent another outcome like the one in Tucson. But it’s as good a place as any to start.

What do you think? Will anything change in how we think about the treatment of mental illness after the deaths of so many in Newtown?

Image via iStockphoto/Marek Uliasz

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