Tucson shootings brought changes to mental health treatment

January 09, 2012

A year ago, a seriously troubled man opened fire in a Safeway parking lot on a beautiful Saturday morning. He killed six people and injured 13 more, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Since then, Arizona has been forced to confront how it treats the mentally ill. From Tucson, Michel Marizco reports on the progress.

MICHEL MARIZCO: Guided by their teachers, a group of kids stood in a mostly straight line, carefully following the chorus to their song, "I’ve Got Peace Like a River." They were well-dressed for this important day. Each clutched a white balloon that will be let loose against the backdrop of the Catalina Mountains behind them. They’re with the International School for Peace, a language immersion school. It was the first event in a long weekend of events throughout the city designed to bring hope and peace after the shootings. Art Aldag was in the crowd watching. He says an event like this is necessary to help a city recover from a tragedy like the Tucson shootings. But he says the bigger questions of mental health and how to care for the mentally ill still needs to be addressed and that's a much tougher mandate than celebrating peace.

ART ALDAG: “Here at our church we’re having an adult ed program after the service on Sunday which is going to pertain to that particular issue. What sort of things we can do and what sort of signs there are to let us know when someone might need some compassionate help.” 

MICHEL MARIZCO: Mental health experts say that there’s an uncomfortable stigma when we talk about the mentally ill that people in Arizona had to confront after the shootings. Vanesa Seaney is with the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, a group responsible for the public mental health systems around Tucson.

VANESSA SEANEY: “When there is potentially a mental health issue often because of the stigma, just like you stated. People don’t want to talk about it. And  what happens is the issue doesn’t present itself until it’s at a crisis state.”

MICHEL MARIZCO: That’s what happened with the accused shooter, Jared Lee Loughner. He attended Pima Community College for five years. In 20-10, he was suspended after public outbursts. He could not return without a mental health clearance. At the time, school officials considered the issue closed. About two months later, Loughner brought a glock-19 handgun to the Safeway parking lot. There have been changes as a result. After the shootings, the college hired psychologist Dr. James Sanchez. His job is to train staff to identify potential threats in the classroom. Sanchez says these changes have only happened at local levels.

JAMES SANCHEZ: “From a regulation perspective or from federal privacy laws, nothing has changed [as far as those legal areas]. After we have difficult situations, folks want to have easy solutions and easy answers. And one of the things that’s very difficult in our society is to balance personal freedoms and personal rights with personal responsibilities.”

MICHEL MARIZCO: Since the shootings, Sanchez has trained about 150 instructors and staff. Vanessa Seaney’s office has also begun training the general public in what she calls mental health first aid. So far, 600 have signed up in southern Arizona. In other words, people are talking about mental health; that’s been one change. But at the same time, Arizona budget cuts have eliminated support for about 12,000 people suffering from mental illness last year.

In Tucson, I’m Michel Marizco.

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