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Preventing Another Tucson Tragedy January 19, 2011

Posted by Crazy Mermaid in mental illness, NAMI.

(Guest blog from Cherrie Herrin-Michehl, MA, Licensed Mental Health Counselor)

Winston Churchill once said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” As a licensed mental health counselor, I couldn’t agree more.

Much of the discourse about the shooting in Tucson has unfortunately divided our nation further along political lines.  As a therapist with a family member who suffers from an acute mental illness, I think many people don’t accurately understand the situation. Friends of the shooter, Jared Loughner, noted  he changed dramatically over the past year and a half.  Worthy of noting. They also reported that Loughner was not on the political right, nor to the left.  Mental illness, not politics, is responsible for this tragic event.

Jared’s writings reflect paranoia of mind control and bizarre delusions, both trademarks of schizophrenia.  At the college he attended, other students reported that he frequently disrupted classes with nonsensical outbursts. This odd, verbally violent behavior became such a problem that he was suspended. School officials asked him not to return unless he could get a clearance from a mental health professional that said that he wasn’t a danger to himself or others.

Most people with acute mental illnesses are not dangerous, so we need not overreact.  Yet a small percentage of individuals are dangerous.  Mental health professionals are trained to evaluate whether or not a person is unsafe.

What can you do if you are concerned that someone you know might be a danger to themselves of others?  According to Carolyn Annette Elsey, an attorney licensed in Washington state, following are the criteria for involuntary commitment:  “A person can be detained on any of three grounds: likelihood of serious harm to others; likelihood of serious harm to self; or most commonly, grave disability. Grave disability is defined as a condition in which a person, as a result of a mental disorder (a) is in danger of serious physical harm resulting from a failure to provide for his or her essential human needs of health or safety, or (b) manifests severe deterioration in routine functioning evidenced by repeated and escalating loss of cognitive or volitional control over his or her actions and is not receiving such care as is essential for his or her health or safety.”  (Note:  The criteria for involuntary commitment vary for different parts of the country.  Check reliable online sources to learn the criteria in your region.)

Here are some things you can do if you are concerned that someone may be a danger to themselves or others and refuses treatment:

  • In case of immediate danger, call 911. (If you are concerned that the person will become more disturbed if they know you are calling, go to the restroom or another private room to call.)
  • Never transport a person in a vehicle against their will.
  • If there is no immediate danger but you are concerned that violence could ensue at any time, report this immediately to your local Crisis Clinic and authorities at work, school, etc. Report facts about what you have seen, heard, or read (including writings from social media sites or other sources).
  • Document when, why, and to whom reports were made.
  • Encourage other people who are concerned to report to authorities as well, and to document their reports.
  • Research your state and county to know in advance who to call if you suspect that someone could become violent.  In the state of Washington, anyone can call the County Designated Mental Health Professionals (CDMHPs) through Crisis Clinic to evaluate individuals.  The referral can be made by anyone who has first-hand knowledge of the person and the presenting problem.  The CDMHP will evaluate to determine if legal criteria for involuntary commitment are met.

My hope and prayer is that people become more informed about mental illness and how to respond when someone’s  behavior appears dangerous.  If professionals and laypeople work together, perhaps  we can prevent another similar catastrophe.

Cherrie Herrin-Michehl, MA, LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor, writer, and speaker in Woodinville, WA.  Visit her blog at http://www.cherriemac.wordpress.com.

Note: In Washington State, while significant gains were made in amending the Involuntary Treatment Act (ITA), 2SS House Bill 3076 retained language that still makes it difficult to implement the ITA. In particular, the current language provides that a person must be determined by a Mental Health Professional to be in “imminent” danger to self or others. Last session, House Bill 2882 was introduced that would change “imminent” to “substantial liklihood”. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) supports this change, and propose to support a similar bill again in the 2011 session. (From NAMI Eastside News October-December 2010 issue).



1. Catherine - March 25, 2011

As you note, the laws governing the definition of “gravely disabled” differ from county to county, and in highly populated counties, most mentally ill people will not get medical intervention until they become so ill as to be violent toward another person, or to actually harm themselves. It’s just amazing that in 2011, in what we think of as a civilized country, that you have to let a mentally ill person descend into such suffering before there is any medical intervention. I have been told by both the Mental Health Crisis Unit and the Police that they won’t intervene unless a mentally ill person has a knife to someone’s throat or is actively taking suicidal steps. In either of those cases you can call 911 and actually get help, so I wonder, why employ people in the other, profoundly impotent, roles? We need to repeal the LPS laws so sick people–who really can’t make choices for themselves–get medical care. !!! Thanks for your posting.

2. CJM - January 23, 2013

I was editing my WordPress links, and came across this old post. Here we are, two years later. Your comments still largely unheeded. We humans are such slow learners!

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