Local mental health advocates hope the tragic events in Arizona will inspire people to learn more about mental illness
BY AMY ASMAN
By now, it’s a story we all know, but wished we didn’t: On Jan. 8, 22-year-old Jared Lee Laughner walked into a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store and opened fire on people attending a political meet-and-greet with U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Loughner managed to kill six people, and injure several others including Giffords, before some bystanders tackled him to the ground.
The tragedy has shaken the country to its core; inspiring people of all walks of life to gather in mourning, launching a media frenzy, and sparking intense dialogue over what incited Loughner to kill.
The question of motivation has yet to be answered, but there have been plenty from theories, involving everything from Sarah Palin to gun control to mental illness.
Several days after the shootings, the Mental Health Association in Santa Barbara County released a statement condemning the “tragic and senseless attack,” and calling
on the community to increase efforts to assist people
displaying symptoms of mental illness.
“It will take more time to begin to understand the reasons and motivations behind this national tragedy,” the statement read. “It must first be emphasized that people who live with mental health conditions are no more likely to be violent than the rest of the population.”
Additionally, the association explained there are many successful treatments for even the most severe mental illnesses. However, social stigma and a chronic lack of funding often prevent people from receiving that treatment.
“The overarching message that is vital is that we have an under-funded, broken mental health system, and it’s not just in Arizona; it’s across the whole country,” said Annmarie Cameron, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Santa Barbara County.
The United States, she said, has a “fail first” mental healthcare system.
“People have to show how seriously disabled they are to get help,” Cameron explained. “They have to suffer unnecessarily with their mental illness.”
With the passage of Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act, in 2004, it looked like things were going to change, for California at least.
Cameron said the state and its healthcare providers started looking at early prevention as a viable treatment option. However, politics and money soon got in the way.
“They ended up using [Proposition 63] to prop up the old broken system,” she said. “If we didn’t have Prop. 63 our state would be a disaster, but it was never meant to serve as a backfill.”
While she mourns what happened in Arizona, Cameron said she’s hopeful that out of tragedy will come opportunities for greater understanding and community unity.
“A very small percentage of people with mental illness have a propensity toward violence. It’s actually equal to that of the general public,” she said. “But mental illness only makes those violent tendencies worse.
“It’s easy for people to confuse or associate unpredictability with violence,” she continued.
Jill Bolster-White, executive director of Transitions-Mental Health Association, a nonprofit based in San Luis Obispo and Northern Santa Barbara counties, agreed, adding that some news coverage of the shootings in Arizona “makes me really nervous because it does desensitize people and can perpetuate fear and the stigma toward mental illness, and can prevent people from reaching out to someone in need.”
“The big point I want people to understand is how treatable mental illnesses are,” she continued. “There are lots of programs available for people with mental illness that have contributed to their recovery.”
She declined to comment on whether the mental healthcare system failed Loughner, but said she feels he is an anomaly compared to the majority of people living with mental illness.
She also agreed with Cameron that there is a severe lack of funding for the system.
“It is extremely difficult to adequately fund a mental health system because it really is a long-term endeavor,” she explained. “If you have a mental illness, you usually have to treat it for the rest of your life.”
When asked about California’s upcoming budgeting process, she said there will probably be some changes made to Medi-Cal coverage and “some other sobering decisions.”
Despite budget cuts, both Transitions and the Mental Health Association are striving to provide their communities with the best services possible.
Some of the programs and services provided by Transitions include: independent living, support services, and housing assistance; family and peer support groups; medical emergency and mental health crisis support; and work assistance programs like Growing Grounds farms and employment networking.
The Mental Health Association offers some similar services, including housing assistance, family and peer support groups, a recovery center, art classes, and a thrift store called the Care Closet.
Along with helping those affected by mental illness, the organizations are striving to extend education services to the entire public.
Last year, Transitions launched a campaign called SLO the Stigma, which aims to debunk the myths surrounding mental illness. And on Jan. 28, it’ll host “Journey of Hope,” an annual mental health awareness forum and resources fair at New Life Church in Pismo Beach.
The Mental Health Association is the first organization in Santa Barbara County to offer Mental Health First Aid, an internationally recognized program that educates people about different mental health disorders, symptoms, and intervention.
“Mental Health First Aid is not intended as a response to people in a violent crisis,” Cameron explained. “It’s designed to give us the tools and skills to help people in need so you don’t have to feel so helpless or overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem.”
The 12-hour class includes lectures and interactive scenarios for various disorders such as depression, anxiety and trauma, psychosis and psychotic disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse disorders, and self-injury.
The association has scheduled classes in Santa Barbara for the month of January, and is working on scheduling classes in Santa Maria and Lompoc.
For more information about the organizations, their services, or educational opportunities, visit mhainsb.org or t-mha.org.
Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at [email protected]