One of the many infuriating aspects of the attempt to blame the tragedy in Tucson on Sarah Palin and other Tea Party types is that the nation thereby ignores the real cause of the horror. This is not only despicable, but it keeps us from figuring out how to deal with something that has caused so much suffering: mental illness.

Dr. E. Fuller Torey is perhaps the country’s leading authority on schizophrenia. He has an important piece in today’s Wall Street Journal entitled “A Predictable Tragedy in Tucson.” Dr. Torey notes:   

The killing of six people in Tucson is one more sad episode in an ongoing series of tragedies that should not be happening. The alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, is reported to have had symptoms associated with schizophrenia-incoherent thought processes, delusional ideas, erratic behavior-and almost certainly was seriously mentally ill and untreated. The fact that he was barred from his college until he was evaluated by a psychiatrist would appear to confirm the nature of the problem.

The truth is that these tragedies are happening every day throughout the United States. The only reason this episode has received widespread publicity is because there were multiple victims and one victim was a member of Congress. Such senseless killings have become increasingly common over the past 30 years, starting in about 1980, when Allard Lowenstein, coincidentally a former congressman, was killed by Dennis Sweeney. Sweeney was a young man with untreated schizophrenia who had been Lowenstein’s protégé in the civil rights movement. Congress was also prominently involved in 1998, when Russell Weston, who also had untreated schizophrenia, killed two policemen while trying to shoot his way into the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C….

Mr. Loughner’s delusions fixated on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, one of 12 seriously injured in the shooting. Some have speculated on the possible relationship of our acrimonious political climate to the incident. It is, however, unlikely that there is any such relationship, since similar tragedies occur in politically harmonious times as well.

The motivation for such killings is usually based on psychotic thinking, not political thinking.

Fuller writes that such murders are the result of failed mental health policies. During the 1960s, it became almost impossible to seek involuntary hospitalization for mental health patients. Unfortunately, when the hospitals were emptied, we failed to put in place policies that would help released patients. Some will take their medicine, while others don’t recognize that they are ill and thus need some outpatient treatment. That is why we see many people who are mentally ill living on the streets or in jails and prisons. Indeed, according to a 2007 study by the U.S. Justice Department, 56% of state prisoners, 45% of federal prisoners, and 64% of local jail inmates suffer from mental illnesses.

Arizona has an abysmal mental health system, but it does have one thing that could have saved the lives lost or altered in Tucson: If public authorities pay attention to somebody like Jared Lee Loughner, they can obtain a court order that mandates treatment. If the person in question does not compley, he can be involuntarily admitted to a hospital. Torey writes:

Ultimately, it is important to hold state officials responsible for not providing sufficient resources to treat those who suffer from serious mental illnesses. For almost two centuries, it has been an accepted function of state government to protect disabled persons and to protect the public from individuals who are potentially dangerous. State governments have been very effective in emptying the hospitals in an effort to save money but remarkably ineffective in providing treatment for seriously mentally ill individuals living in the community.

A psychiatrist emeritus, Dr. Charles Krauthammer, has a column on the mental illness aspect of the Tucson case in today’s Washington Post. He is less measured in tone than Torey, but I can’t help applauding his dig at New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who jumped at the chance to use the tragedy to try to muzzle those who don’t hold his views:

The origins of Loughner’s delusions are clear: mental illness. What are the origins of Krugman’s?

How I wish Sheriff Loud Mouth had taken the time to look into the case of Jared Loughner, whose bizarre behavior had triggered several complaints. Perhaps President Obama will address this issue when he speaks tonight in Tucson.  Let’s hope so.