January 15, 2011

It’s been a week since the tragedy in Tucson.  We’ve moved from shock and fear through blaming both the rhetoric of politicians and gun laws; we watched models of good behavior and models of bad behavior react as we all struggled with the emotion and impact of this sad, sad time.  Personally, I even had a fleeting moment when I shamefully advocated adding Arizona to Texas in my list of states that perhaps we as a country would be better off letting secede.  We were comforted to have Boehner and Obama on the same page for at least a moment…as well as other Republican/Democratic political and media combinations.  We watched and participated as the country moved through the many conflicting stages of grief that most of us have experienced on an individual personal level.  We cried, were angry, questioned why, memorialized, eulogized, celebrated the lives of those victims who lost their lives, and buried so many.  We called out those wounded who have gotten medical treatment and have bravely returned to their own worlds and we continue to wrap Gabby Giffords in our thoughts and prayers as she struggles in her recovery.  We stand on a precipice, hoping the experience can heal national wounds, allow consensus and collaboration to grow as a means to reconcile strong political differences, and question whether even this will be enough to allow that to happen.

We demonized the shooter, then questioned his parents, and finally, slowly, the real culprit in this tragedy-mental illness-rose to the fore.  A feature article in the STRIB, and some excellent discussions on MPR yesterday, reflected a shift in emphasis. By evening, mental illness as an explanation was slowly emerging and actually rose to the talk show level – at least on public television.  Despite statistics that show that some 70-80% of all mental illness comes to fore in adolescents, the lack of recognition of symptoms, an unwillingness to intervene, the stigma associated with it, all complicated by laws insuring and governing one’s individual rights, mean that treatments often are not given a chance and tragedies stemming from mental illness, continue to occur over and over – both at an individual and family level as well as those, like last Saturday’s tragedy in Tucson, that find their way to the national spotlight.

Last weekend as I followed this evolving tragedy, I tried hard to objectively listen to how it was handled by the “Fourth Estate”, our national press.  And I was disappointed. In the first interviews, I saw the press immediately focus, with their leading questions, on placing the blame on our national political divisions.  As that argument crescendoed and then leveled out, only to be replaced by the next controversial topic- gun control, I questioned whether these tactics were sincere or were part of the continuing race for sensationalism and ratings.  And I was ashamed – first of myself for even thinking that, and then for the press, for using these tactics instead of legitimately seizing on an opportunity to bring mental health to the fore as a significant issue and teachable moment.  As we reached Tuesday night and the President’s address to the hurting masses in Tucson and the nation, I was irritated with the press, first at the speculation on whether Obama could step up to the task as past presidents had done in times of tragedy …and then at the immediately post-speech self-righteous critiques of not only the speech, but of the audience reaction to it.  In the end, I think Obama was vindicated, and the press looked foolish, but the losers-after the actual victims, of course- remain the adolescents of our nation and their families, who are struggling with mental illness. 

Please let this finally be a lesson learned, and let us together find a way to address this issue. Let meaningful dialogues begin, so we can somehow reach a consensus that allows us to treat the diseases and help the victims – not simply guarantee them the right to privacy and the right not to be held and treated once diagnosed.  We as a nation are better than this…it is time to demonstrate it.

As for the press, they, too, can be vindicated in my mind, were they to put aside the battle of ratings and help carry the banner of mental illness through knowledgeable, researched stories about this devastating situation.

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