Monday, January 24, 2011

We in the counseling community share everyone’s deep sense of sadness over the horrific shootings in Tucson. We also share in the wish that a troubled young man could have gotten the help that might have averted this tragedy. As we all struggle to make sense of such a manifestly senseless event, we also share in the feeling of public vulnerability and a desire for action to restore our sense of personal safety. However, some of the resulting declarations in the media, that this disturbed person should have been “forced” to get help, are troubling.

We recognize the sense of urgency that people feel to re-examine the workings of our “mental health system.” We welcome the discussion; it is long overdue. At the same time, it is important to remember that there are reasons why in our free society taking away someone’s freedom is a difficult and deliberative process. Forcing someone to get treatment must always be done carefully and based on specific, objective criteria. While many precise tools and measurements are available to assess physical health, fewer exist for mental health conditions. Hospitalizing someone involuntarily or forcing someone to get treatment for a mental disorder, ultimately involves the judgment of a clinician, and the criteria are often subjective.

We continue to hope that the dialog following the horrible events of the past week will result in a re-examination of our public priorities. It has been too easy for too long for government leaders at all levels to balance their budgets or fund their more popular projects at the expense of our healthcare systems, particularly those devoted to mental health. To have the kinds of responsive and effective mental health systems that are being demanded in the wake of this recent tragedy, significantly more resources will be needed and significantly more funds must be allocated. Just as freedom does not come for free, neither does healthcare, whether mental or physical.

Finally, we are heartened by the nature of some of the discussion that has started to emerge. It is encouraging to see people begin to talk with each other rather than yell at each other. Healing requires that we all fully acknowledge, process, and digest all aspects of our experience — physical, mental, and emotional. To do so, we must be able to verbalize our experience in an atmosphere of acceptance and support. Healing only takes place when people feel heard and understood. This is why psychotherapy is called “the talking cure.” As mental health counselors, we are prepared to do our part. Our greatest hope now is that the yelling can finally subside and that the talking and listening can continue.