A framed photograph of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords is seen placed at a makeshift memorial set up for the victims of the January 8 shooting outside the University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona

I was quite disturbed to learn of the tragedy in Tuscon, Arizona, that left six dead and fourteen wounded on Saturday, January 8.  Among the victims were Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a 9-year old girl Christina Greene, who was born on September 11, 2001.  The gunman was 22-year old Jared Loughner, who some observed suffered from mental illness.  I was struck by the tragedy that claimed so many innocent lives.  Who would have ever imagined that participating in a “Congress on Your Corner” event would lead to such a catastrophe?

The Arizona crisis forces the people of our nation to come to terms with two major issues:  violent rhetoric and mental illness.  Many political officials, pundents and personalities have blamed the mass shooting on the violent rhetoric that has recently permeated our nation’s political discourse.  We all must realize that words do have consequences.  There is no need to promote hatred and violence against people who politically disagree with your views.  Hateful and violent rhetoric does have consequences.

The Arizona crisis has also brought the issue of mental illness to the forefront of the American discourse.  Loughner’s family members and colleagues had observed that he had mental issues.  In fact, Pima Community College suspended Loughner until he received a mental health evaluation.  Had he received some type of treatment, would our nation have experienced this tragedy?

More specifically, the Arizona shooting should prompt a discussion among African Americans and Latinos on how violent rhetoric and mental illness particularly affects our communities.  Violence in our lyrics has had dire consequences in our communities, as reflected in the incarceration and homicide rates.  Additionally, African Americans and Latinos have stigmatized and misunderstood mental health, leading to the fact that we are less likely to receive diagnoses and treatment for mental illnesses.  The failure of African Americans and Latinos to adequately deal with the issues of violent rhetoric and mental health has and continues to have dire consequences within our communities.  It is imperative that we invest time, energy and resources to addressing these concerns.

Thank God for heroes like Daniel Hernandez, who is credited for saving the life of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.  My heart and spirit goes out to the families and friends of the victims.  No one should experience this type of tragedy.  In the words of President Barak Obama last night at the memorial service for the victims of the Arizona shooting, “The loss of these wonderful people should make everyone of us strive to be better.”  May we all keep Arizona in our spirit and prayers.

Categories: Opinion pieces


  1. Comment by Charles McGillis

    Charles McGillis Reply January 26, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Public perceptions of the link between mental illness and violence are central to stigma and discrimination as people are more likely to condone forced legal action and coerced treatment when violence is at issue. Further, the presumption of violence may also provide a justification for bullying and otherwise victimizing the mentally ill. High rates of victimization among the mentally ill have been noted, although this often goes unnoticed by clinicians and undocumented in the clinical record. In a study of current victimization among inpatients, for example, 63% of those with a dating partner reported physical victimization in the previous year. For a quarter, the violence was serious, involving hitting, punching, choking, being beaten up, or being threatened with a knife or gun. Forty-six percent of those who lived with family members reported being physically victimized in the previous year and 39% seriously so. Three quarters of those reporting violence from a dating partner retaliated, as did 59% of those reporting violence from a family member. In addition, many people with serious mental illnesses are poor and live in dangerous and impoverished neighborhoods where they are at higher risk of being victimized. A recent study of criminal victimization of persons with severe mental illness showed that 8.2% were criminally victimized over a four month period, much higher than the annual rate of violent victimization of 3.1 for the general population. A history of victimization and bullying may predispose the mentally ill to react violently when provoked.

    Definitive statements are difficult to make and it is equally possible to find recent literature supporting the conclusions that the mentally ill are no more violent, they are as violent, or they are more violent than their non-mentally ill counterparts. Prior to 1980, the dominant view was that the mentally ill were no more, and often less likely to be violent. Crime and violence in the mentally ill were associated with the same criminogenic factors thought to determine crime and violence in anyone else: factors such as gender, age, poverty, or substance abuse. Any elevation in rates of crime or violence among mentally ill samples was attributed to the excess of these factors. When they were statistically controlled, the rates often equalized. However, although the main risk factors for violence still remain being young, male, single, or of lower socio-economic status, several more recent studies have reported a modest association between mental illness and violence, even when these elements have been controlled.

  2. Comment by Ramona Houston

    Ramona Houston Reply January 28, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Mr. McGillis,

    Thank you for your extensive comments on the link between mental illness and violence. It is an issue that must be addressed by the mental health care experts in order that we may limit the possibilities of tragedies like the one in Arizona happening again in the future.

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