I spoke on Monday with Ed Eide, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Minnesota, about last weekend’s tragedy in Tucson, Ariz., and about what messages such incidents convey to the public about people with mental illnesses. Here’s a condensed version of my interview with him.
MinnPost: When the media reports an incident like this, what is your initial thought? Do you immediately wonder if the person involved had a mental illness?
Ed Eide: My first reaction is just the horror of anyone being shot. It’s repulsive. In this case, the person was acting strangely in a classroom setting and was asked to leave [his community college], but there’s no diagnosis of a mental illness or any other kind of illness for this young man. It appears that he was easily influence by something or someone. Maybe that’s a key to his personality. But there’s nothing to indicate that he has a personality disorder or any kind of mental illness at this point in time.
MP: So you think what’s been reported about [Jared L. Loughner’s] actions don’t indicate a mental illness?
EE: I’m not saying they do or they don’t. I haven’t seen anything to say he’s been diagnosed with mental illness, so to jump to the conclusion that he has one is, I think, inappropriate. Lots of people who’ve shot people don’t have mental illnesses. Lots of people who’ve acted out against other people don’t have mental illnesses.
MP: If Loughner is diagnosed with a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, it will undoubtedly raise the public’s fears about people with such illnesses. Would those fears be justified? Are people with severe mental illnesses more violent than the rest of the population?
EE: No. Absolutely not. In fact, under most circumstances, people with an extremely complicated mental illness are more likely to harm themselves — or others will harm them — then they are to harm others.
MP: Does the public’s misconception about mental illness and violence hinder the cause of getting care for the mentally ill?
EE: I think it does. It paints a false impression that everyone with a mental illness is dangerous. People understand that a mental illness is a biological illness. But even though they understand that, they’re still not understanding of people with mental illness leading a normal life. It’s like they can’t connect that. This just exacerbates that view by general citizens.
MP: If someone has a loved one they think is showing signs of mental illness, what should they do?
EE: Have a conversation with the person. Otherwise, they’ll have a tendency to isolate, and they won’t get the help that they need. You know, we all put off having that mole checked, and then all of sudden it becomes cancerous. Getting an early diagnosis of a mental illness is no different than getting an early diagnosis of a cancerous mole on your arm. It’s the same kind of thing. Whatever we can do to prevent the exacerbation of the condition, we should be doing. Too often, we don’t [take that early action] — for physical illness or for mental illness.
MP: What if the person is incoherent?
EE: If they’re isolating, if they’re speaking incoherently, if they’re not making sense, if they’re not connecting things, then talk to them about that and about how it’s time that they talk with somebody [professionally]. If they agree to that, then support them. If they don’t agree to it … well, you can’t force things on people, but you can certainly make them aware of your concern.
MP: Should the family contact your organization?
EE: They could do that. If the person has health insurance, they could talk to the health provider who could get them to a psychologist or somebody who could do a brief interview. At the work place, they can talk to the benefits people and see what they can do.
MP: How important is it to get help early?
EE: We get a number of calls from a family member who will say, “I’m at the end of my rope,” but they haven’t really sat down and talked with the person. They have just allowed the behavior. It’s not unlike someone who has taken their drinking to a level where it impacts their family. That’s a disease also. I’ve seen so many men who drink and harm their family. They lose their job and do things like that. Then all of a sudden it’s like, OK, now it’s time for treatment. If we can intervene early in any illness, there’s more of a likelihood that we’re going to have recovery from the illness, regardless of what the illness is.
MP: What about the controversial idea that hate speech can incite people with mental illness to violence. What are you thoughts about that?
EE: I think hate speech can get any of us riled up, whether we have an illness or not. If a person has any delusions or paranoia or feelings that somebody is out to get them, then it just builds up and builds up and builds up. And if it’s somebody of influence out there, regardless of what the influence is — if it’s a boss or somebody who’s speaking a lot about certain issues — then it riles up people even more. Unfortunately, I think we’ve taken a lot of things to extremes. Instead of working in the middle, we’re working on the two extremes, and then people get excited about that and get pumped up about that.
MP: If there is one message you’d like the public to take away from this tragic incident, what would it be?
EE: Don’t jump to conclusions. This person clearly acted out of the norm. But is there a mental illness there? We don’t know that yet. Is the behavior inappropriate? Absolutely. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to a mental illness.