BIDDEFORD — The horrific event that transpired in Tucson on Saturday has inspired more than ample discussion regarding the tone and spirit of our nation’s political discourse.

Despite all the fervent commentary, there is one piece of this puzzle that remains largely glossed over, however.

And this is where it gets a bit personal. When I was 22, I was living in Tucson and attending college part-time. Just like Jared Loughner, I was removed from school for many of the same reasons.

But I got lucky. I ended up at the Southern Arizona Mental Health Center (SAMHC) and spent the next several weeks there as an inpatient client.

I did not have insurance. I did not have any assets or even a job. My family was in Maine, thousands of miles away.

So, my ability to receive life-saving treatment and long-term support services was funded primarily on the back of the Arizona taxpayer.

Nearly a quarter century later, I like to think that investment has, so far, paid significant dividends. But I can assure you, it was a long-term and risky investment.

Make no mistake. Mr. Loughner committed horrific, criminal acts that warrant the full weight of justice. But if society expects and demands justice, we must also recognize that there is a very deep and painful cost associated with scaling down or the elimination of community-based mental health services and treatment options.

According to its web site, SAMHC was officially established in 1962 as a state-owned and operated outpatient mental health facility under the aegis of the Arizona State Hospital.

The campus-style facility, then located at the intersection of Campbell Avenue and 6th Street, was purchased through legislative appropriation.

Nearly 50 years after its founding, SAMHC continues to provide crisis behavioral health services to the entire community, regardless of ability to pay, insurance status or age.

As of this writing, it is unclear whether Loughner attempted to access those services or if he or members of his family made any attempt to deal with his now-obvious illness.

What is clearly known, however, is the commentary our society freely tosses around when describing mental illness.

Unfortunately, the terms “sicko” “whack-job” and “nut case” are apparently acceptable on social media outlets, reader comment pages and even in the so-called mainstream media.

Yet, we wonder with righteous indignation why those affected by mental illness are reluctant to seek services or get help before their illness manifests itself into a deadly outcome.

If I were dealing with testicular cancer, I could expect to be described as a “hero” or as a “survivor.”

I am praised for my courage to acknowledge my illness and for my willingness to fight it tooth and nail with all available resources. Heck, you might even put a bumper sticker on your car, wear a pink bracelet or post something supportive on your Facebook page.

But what if I tell you I have a diagnosed mental illness; an illness that affects me every day; an insidious, almost-invisible illness for which there is no cure?

I get some nervous head nods or even some encouragement in the form of: “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, try positive thinking, you should appreciate things more.”

Well-intentioned, perhaps, but the stigma and its costs are clear. Though we have made much progress, I can assure you that we have a long, long way to go.

Only because I was able to access services and am willing to deal every day with my disease am I able to do things now that I once thought impossible: hold a job, enjoy a wonderful marriage, own a home and even hold a driver’s license.

So, some may choose to focus on the debate regarding our nation’s political rhetoric. But whether we’re talking about John Hinckley, Mark Chapman or the more recent example of Jared Loughner, one thing we should all be able to recognize is that mental illness can be a fatal illness – and if left untreated, its costs are overwhelming.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one of every five Americans suffers from some form of mental illness.

I hope you agree with me that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

 

- Special to The Press Herald