Mental Monday: The Mental Health Lessons We Can Learn From Tragedy

Like so many others across the world, I was horrified to learn of the tragedy that took place on Saturday morning in Tucson. The assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six innocent victims, including a nine year old girl, was a gut-wrenching shock to the Tucson community and the nation as a whole. Why would someone do this? What would possess a 22 year old man to gun down a group of people? And what can we do to prevent this from happening again?

Whether the young man had a politically based motive to kill Rep. Giffords or not is still speculation. But what we do know is that the alleged murderer is obviously and clearly a very troubled person. What we do know is that he lives with his parents and that others who knew him also knew that something was wrong. So the only question I have right now is this: why didn’t anyone help him?

When we know someone who is troubled, delusional, and unstable, the signs will be there. Someone with the internal rage, delusional behavior, and unstable thought process like this young man exhibited will not be able to hide it easily.  So why was he ignored? As we know all too well, if we ignore, avoid, or deny the serious mental health problems of those we know, it may only result in tragic consequences for that person and/or for others. In fact, recent research has shown the correlation to untreated mental health problems and violence…and the problem is on the rise.

So what do we do when we know someone who needs psychological help? If the problem is critical and you have reason to believe that a person is a threat to themselves or others, it is imperative to call an emergency helpline or the police. An involuntary hold may be necessary for psychological assessment and treatment. If you don’t have reason to believe that the person is a threat to themselves or others, there are other options to get them the help they need. First, call their doctor and explain your observations. If they do not have a doctor, call your State’s department of mental health, social services department, or a local hospital to get the assistance you need. The person may or may not be willing to get help, but there are resources for you to get them assistance if they are uncooperative. Make sure to be supportive towards the person and offer to go with them to their appointments. Be understanding, compassionate, kind, and respect their feelings. It is scary to get treatment for psychological problems, so be mindful of their emotions.

Signs that someone may need immediate psychological help:

  1. The person cannot function well in day to day life. He or she has major problems in school, staying in school, keeping a job, or has problems creating and maintaining healthy relationships with others.
  2. The person has frequent confrontations with others, outbursts of rage, or gets into fights.
  3. The person has frequent mood-swings and major highs and lows.
  4. The person has prolonged sadness or irritability (depression).
  5. The person is anti-social, keeps to themselves, and is very withdrawn.
  6. The person exhibits paranoid or obsessive behavior and has excessive fears and worries.
  7. The person exhibits delusions or hallucinations.
  8. The person has dramatic changes in eating and sleeping patterns.
  9. The person is often confused.
  10. The person has a substance abuse problem.
  11. The person denies their symptoms.

Tens of millions of people in the U.S. have mental health problem and the vast majority are not a threat to themselves or others. However, there are those who are and who will need immediate care. No one can say the tragedy in Tucson could have been avoided if this young man received the psychological help he obviously needs. However, if any change can stem from this tragedy, it’s that more people will be tuned into the mental health needs of those in our lives and help them get the psychological assistance they need.

Disclaimer: I am a trained Marriage and Family Therapist with an MA in Counseling Psychology. While I have studied and have experience counseling clients on some of the issues I will address in the Mental Monday series, nothing I write is a substitute for medical advice or psychological counseling. Please do not rely on the content of this blog for medical or mental health care purposes.