State budget cuts, as well as a widespread stigma attached to mental illness, may have made it easier for the suspect in Saturday's deadly Tucson shootings to slip through the cracks despite clear signs of mental illness, according to mental health advocates in Arizona and nationally.
Cuts to Arizona's mental health services wiped out funding for the kind of early detection and intervention programs that might have steered the shooting suspect, Jared Loughner, into treatment, they say. But a broader sense of fear and confusion around mental health issues also lies behind the lack of access, according to experts.
"As a society we don't take it seriously as an illness," says Ron Honberg, the national legal and policy director for the National Alliance for Mental Illness. "There's a lot of stigma attached."
Only 36 percent of mentally troubled youth get professional help, according to National Institute of Mental Health statistics cited by Reuters.
"There are not a lot of mental health resources available for people," Honberg told The Lookout. "So finding help is not that easy."
Loughner exhibited signs of mental instability. He consistently disrupted classes at Pima County Community College, and at least one classmate expressed worries in writing that he could turn violent, the New York Times reports. Eventually, the school suspended him until a doctor could confirm that he didn't pose a threat to himself or others; it never heard back.
No evidence has emerged that the school, Loughner's parents or anyone else ever pressed him to get help, or initiated a process through which Loughner could be involuntarily hospitalized -- although Arizona makes that process relatively easy.
Mental health advocates say cuts to mental health services may have played a role. To help fill a gaping budget gap, Arizona this year slashed such services by $36 million, or 37 percent. Other states, too, have significantly cut funding for mental health services in recent years.
Arizona's cuts affected programs designed to improve the level of public understanding of the dangers of mental illness, so that people like Loughner might be identified, Bill Kennard, the executive director of the Arizona chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, told The Lookout.
Kennard explained that such programs promoted "increased awareness to teachers and family members about, when you see these things, here's what you should do -- giving people the steps they can take to suggest that the person needs help. Those services were cut."
Most of Arizona's cuts, though, appear to be affecting people who, unlike Loughner, have already been identified as mentally ill. Many people in that group are now at risk of losing counseling services and medications, experts say.
"I absolutely have seen an effect based on funding cuts," Laura Waterman, the clinical director of the Southern Arizona Mental Health Corporation, which serves the Tucson area, told The Lookout. "Individuals who have a serious mental illness and don't have Medicaid had their benefits package seriously cut," she said. They no longer have access to case management, transportation, housing and other services, she said.
But behind the lack of funding is a more stubborn problem: that policymakers often don't view mental illnesses as requiring the same order of treatment that physical disorders do.
Mark Heyrman, a mental health expert at the University of Chicago Law School, says that the spotty funding for mental health care grows out of this view. "It plays into our underfunding and undercaring for people with mental health issues," he said. "We don't take it seriously as an illness."
Heyrman notes recent cases of the mentally ill turning violent after failing to receive help. "Most of these incidents occur because we have not offered treatment," he said. "We know that we don't have mental health services for a huge percentage of people who need them."
Heyrman continued: "In Arizona, a lot of them will have serious problems. And in my view it's a tragedy that we don't care enough to fix that."
(Photo of Loughner at the Tucson Festival of Books in March: Arizona Daily Star/Mamta Popat, via AP)