Yvonne Abraham

Loss of care hurts us all

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / January 13, 2011

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It’s pretty clear by now that nobody is going to do anything about the insane depths to which political discourse has plummeted in this country.

Or about the nation’s gun laws, for which insanity is too weak a word.

Sad to say, there’s little hope on either score because our worst broadcast offenders and a legion of gun rights absolutists have played the politicization card, accusing anybody who doesn’t agree with them of using a national tragedy to score partisan points. And they’re getting away with it.

So, that’s that.

But one kind of insanity is still on the table in the wake of Jared Loughner’s Tucson rampage: The literal kind.

I’ll take it, because we really need to talk about how we deal with mental illness in this country.

One of the few things on which everybody agrees at this point is that Loughner had come undone. Officials at his community college saw it, directing him to get help if he wanted to stay enrolled. Apparently, he didn’t.

There was a time when people like Loughner, showing signs of deep psychosis, were far more likely to be institutionalized, even against their will.

Should we go back to those days? No way, says Dr. Daniel Fisher, 67, and he should know. The psychiatrist is president of the National Empowerment Center, a Lawrence advocacy group for people recovering from mental illness. He was institutionalized himself in his 20s.

Working as a neurochemist at the National Institutes of Mental Health, he came to believe his television was talking to him and that the pope was urging him to go to church.

“I was raised Unitarian, so that was a bit of a shock,’’ Fisher joked.

Sometimes he thought he was Jesus Christ. Before his third hospitalization, he had violent thoughts. He was arrested for accosting a stranger in the street.

“People were afraid of me,’’ Fisher said. If he hadn’t gotten help, “I might have been in jail; I might have died,’’ he said. “I spent a whole night wandering dangerous neighborhoods in DC, hoping somebody would shoot me.’’

Diagnosed as schizophrenic, Fisher was given the harsh and stigmatizing treatments common at the time: involuntary confinement, which only made him angrier, and powerful, numbing medications. But he lucked out with a psychiatrist who looked looked deep into him. Fisher says talk therapy cured him, along with meditation.

Fisher’s doctor was ahead of his time. No longer do we warehouse vast numbers of mentally ill people in institutions. We try to keep them in their communities, with housing and employment and peers.

It’s a more effective, compassionate approach, but it brings risks. It’s almost impossible to identify the minuscule percentage of people with mental illnesses who turn into Jared Loughners. And nobody who recognized his disturbing behavior could force him to get help.

Fisher isn’t surprised Loughner didn’t seek it. We’ve come a long way, but not that far: The stigma thrives. “This should be a wake-up call,’’ Fisher said.

We’re nowhere near parity when it comes to insurance companies covering treatments for mental illness. And states continue to cut mental health budgets, counselors, and services that provide help with housing and jobs, often as important as therapy and drugs in making people well. The crack through which many mentally ill people fall has widened. Add it all up, and we’re pretty much lost when it comes to those few who might hurt others.

We need to find our way and fast.

Because there are many among us who think the Jared Loughners of the world have a God-given right to a semiautomatic Glock 19.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at