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Friday, January 14, 2011
'Sick for a Long Time ... and Nobody Stepped In'
By Joline Gutierrez Krueger
Journal Staff Writer
Jared Loughner was not always a monster. Of that, Debbi Wayne is fairly certain.
She's never met Loughner, doesn't know his family, hadn't heard his name until last Saturday when it became inextricably linked to America's latest lethal, awful confluence of bullets and an unsound mind.
She's been where Loughner's parents are. She knows the anguish and the helplessness of watching a child sink into the depths of madness with tragic, almost unavoidable consequences.
And she knows her child, shot and killed by a Bernalillo County sheriff's deputy during a suicide callout five years ago, was no monster.
"My daughter had been brilliant and beautiful," she says. "But she also had a mental illness. She wasn't crazy. She was sick, and until Americans realize mental illness is just that — an illness — we're in for dark days."
One of those dark days came Saturday in Tucson, where Loughner is accused of shooting 19 people, six of them fatally, one of them an 9-year-old girl.
Those who knew Loughner, or thought they did, have come forward to describe him as creepy, crazy, scary, increasingly isolated and potentially dangerous.
But he had not always been that way. He had been normal once, even talented, friendly and intelligent, they say.
"He was a wonderful, beautiful, loving baby boy," Loughner's aunt told USA Today this week. "He was the sweetest thing that ever lived."
As we look at his haunting, smirking face on every front page, cable newscast and website in the country, it's hard to imagine that.
Experts and armchair psychiatrists speculate that Loughner had in recent years suffered from a mental illness such as schizophrenia, which typically doesn't make its presence known until young adulthood.
Loughner is 22.
For Wayne's daughter, it began earlier, perhaps 13, though she was able to function well, exceedingly so. She consistently made the honor roll, graduated from Cibola High School with a 3.785 grade-point average. She was nominated to West Point and received a full-ride ROTC scholarship to Colorado State University.
Neither of those aspirations materialized. Her mind was breaking down until finally the tenuous bonds with sanity tore in two.
She had not been a monster, but she had been chased by the monsters in her mind. Wayne and her husband tried everything to save her, mortgaging their home to pay for all her hospitalizations in New Mexico and two other states so many times they can't count them all, her psychiatrists and therapists and medications.
"After she died, I threw away 84 prescriptions," Wayne says.
It's not known yet whether Loughner's parents tried as hard to save him, but it's clear to Wayne that the others did not do enough.
Officials at Pima Community College, the school Loughner had last attended, suspended him in September after repeated contacts with campus police and told his parents he would need a mental health clearance in order to return.
Loughner never went back. There is nothing to indicate he ever received treatment.
"This person was sick for a long time, and nobody stepped in," Wayne says. "He didn't just wake up that day and go nuts. This is a guy who had run-ins at his school, with police, but they did nothing but kick him out and leave him to his own devices. Why was he not worth enough for somebody to step in? I'm not saying he was salvageable. We don't know that. But why didn't anybody try?"
Wayne knows how hard that is. It's not easy to control the care and involuntary commitment of an adult child in most states, including Arizona and New Mexico, because of the sovereignty afforded every adult, no matter how mentally impaired.
Patient confidentiality laws preclude parents and other family members from accessing information or having a say about their loved one's mental health treatment.
"I know that if you're in New Mexico and you have a mentally ill kid who's an adult, good luck," Wayne says. "We went to court numerous times begging the judge, begging the psychiatrist to help us and it didn't happen."
Add to that the lack of enough mental health care providers and facilities, the lack of societal understanding of the mentally ill, and Wayne warns that those dark days, like the one in Tucson, at Fort Hood, at Virginia Tech — and in Albuquerque, where five people were slain in a single day in 2005 by a man with schizophrenia and a gun — will continue.
An estimated one in five New Mexicans has a mental disorder, varying from mild to severe, but only 19 percent of the adults and 52 percent of children and adolescents with such disorders are receiving treatment, according to the New Mexico Behavioral Health Needs Assessment and Gap Analysis Project of 2002, the latest and most thorough analysis available in the state.
This state ranks near the bottom of per-capita mental health spending, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The state's largest psychiatric care provider is Albuquerque's Metropolitan Detention Center.
The dark days for Wayne's daughter ended Nov. 20, 2005, when a sheriff's deputy, who admitted not knowing how to deal with mental health callouts, burst through the bedroom door she had barricaded herself behind with a passel of knives and shot her.
She was 20.
After her death, the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department agreed, as part of a legal settlement with the Waynes, to implement a Crisis Intervention Team policy and require additional training for deputies on how to deal with the mentally ill.
Perhaps the tragedy in Tucson will also lead to a few changes, before the next dark day comes.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. You can reach Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.