The fallout from the shooting in Arizona has launched a thousand theories about the motives of the 22 year old shooter Jared Lee Loughner ranging from the interesting to the absurd. Some decry his easy access to a weapon. Others raise suspicions about a reading list that included the ideological odd couple of the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf. Yet, most miss a central point – Jared Lee Loughner, a deeply mentally disturbed young man, may not have been able to help himself even if he wanted to. You see, Loughner lives in the United States, a country where access to mental health services is blocked by a for-profit healthcare system.
Outside the System
For most people in the US, gaining access to quality mental health services depends on their ability to secure healthcare coverage through a private insurance company or public programs linked to deep poverty or old age. The absence of a free public national healthcare plan has left more than 50 million Americans outside of the healthcare system, unable to access care for physical or mental ailments.
The need for such care is certainly evident. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that more than 26% of the population over 18 suffers from a diagnosable mental illness. This amounts to more than 57 million people with one disorder and nearly half of these people suffer from two identifiable disorders. The numbers with major mental health conditions such as bi-polarity, manic-depression and manic and panic disorders each total into the millions.
While the numbers of afflicted grow, the self awareness about their conditions increases as popular presentations of potential therapeutic solutions proliferate. A combination of counseling and medication are held up as desirable approaches to mental illness. However, the ever rising costs of accessing such services is often absent from these presentations. In fact, the only services that seem to be freely accessible are the myriad of suicide hotlines and anti-suicide counseling. Few similar structures exist to care for those suffering from mental illnesses that are not suicidal.
While some, such as Loughner, will externalize this suffering, millions of others live in silent torment while a parade of TV shows model the benefits of mental health counseling and seemingly endless commercials advertise the latest mental health drug. All out of reach for the uninsured.
Not surprisingly, given its generally reactionary approach to other social issues, Arizona’s healthcare system is a privatized mess. An estimated one million residents go without health insurance, including more than 200,000 children. Worse yet, local officials in Pima County, the area Gabrielle Giffords represents in the House, recently carried out a purge of residents on publicly provided health insurance. Nearly 45% of the County’s mental health service recipients were forced off of public programs last year. The purge was the result of budget cuts that have led to sharp reductions in public services throughout the state.
In response to being shut out the system many young people such as Jared Loughner turn to the free mental health services offered at college. And, in fact, the 22 year old’s mentally unstable condition manifested itself while he was enrolled at Pima Community College. However, instead of attempting to introduce counseling or maintain him inside the institution for the purposes of monitoring him, Loughner was suspended by the school and eventually allowed to drop out of the college after a series of confrontations with the police.
Mental health advocates suggest that family or friends, perhaps encouraged by school officials, might have petitioned the court system for a mental evaluation that could have led to state mandated treatment. However, this is a truly horrific process to go through just to access free treatment. Friends and family would have had to indict a person they care about before the court in order to mandate treatment. Few people would go through, much less know, about such a process. Did Pima Community College even consider an intervention strategy for Loughner? How does cost shape the plans they devise for other students? These are the wrong questions to be asking about our healthcare system.
Another Healthcare System is Possible
Far better than this would be a system that provides mental health services without charge. That healthcare system is called a single-payer system or, more commonly, a “Medicare for All” health system. By cutting out the private interests, this public system would make mental health services available to anyone who needs them. Only such a public system, organized outside of the profit motive of private care, can deliver on the promises made by advances in counseling and psychotherapy.
Perhaps if we lived in a society with a real public health system, where everyone knows where to go to access free services, Jared Loughner would have sought some relief for his mental illness. Perhaps school officials would be more apt to develop plans to address mental health issues among students if the system were free. And, perhaps our society would be a better, healthier and more nurturing place if our fellow human beings could access the medical care they need.
Numerous Factors Behind the Shooting
This argument is not meant to undercut claims for gun control ? the weapon Loughner used should not have been so readily available. It is not meant to absolve the right-wing who clearly contributed to the shooting through their use of, frankly, homicidal language and symbols. And it is certainly not meant to distract from the fact that Arizona has become ground zero for hate in the form of the targeting and criminalization of immigrants.
I mean to make a positive case about the desperate need for a single-payer healthcare system in the United States. And, in doing so, I seek to illustrate that the absence of freely accessible care has serious, and often unexpected, consequences for our society. Some may suffer in silence, but others, like Jared Loughner, will multiply their sufferings by including the innocent among their victims.
A great act of solidarity with the mentally ill would be to finally establish healthcare as a human right in this country. It has been a long time coming and there have already been too many victims.
BILLY WHARTON is a writer, activist and the editor of the Socialist WebZine. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.