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Could Mental Health Intervention Have Prevented Tucson Tragedy?

January 14, 2011

LANSING, Mich. - A long-time Michigan mental health advocate says the shooting tragedy in Arizona could have been avoided. The accused shooter in Tucson, Jared Loughner, had been suspended from Pima Community College more than three months ago for disruptive behavior that included five run-ins with campus police. His return hinged on a mental health professional concluding he would not be a danger to himself or others.

Maxine Thome, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, says instead of suspensions, we need ways to intervene before there's a tragedy.

"When there's an awareness that someone is troubled, there ought to be a referral immediately to a university counseling center, a community college counseling program or a community referral. And that didn't happen in this situation."

Michigan mental health programs are already severely limited because of steep funding cuts, and Thome says help is not available for everyone. She says funding for programs is crucial. Otherwise, the patient is left at risk and the public is vulnerable.

"In this economy, very few people can afford to see someone who's in private practice. And very few people have health insurance that will cover mental health services. So, is the public at risk? Yes. But primarily, the person who is at risk is the person with mental illness."

Under Arizona law, a court can force a person to undergo evaluation and treatment. However, officials say it wasn't clear at the time that Loughner met the legal standard of being a danger to himself or others. Thome says the law cannot work if no evaluation is ever conducted, or if mental health services are not available.

Amy Miller/Lori Abbott, Public News Service - MI