Friday, January 14, 2011

The Psychotic Assassin: Jared Lee Loughner

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

A delusional young loner becomes obsessed with a blonde woman. Disgusted with politicians and the government, he writes rambling rants difficult to understand. He hides the truth about his life from his family. He isolates from friends, buys a gun, attempts to assassinate a politician.

While this sounds like the story of accused Arizona mass murderer Jared Lee Loughner, it's actually a synopsis of the iconic 1976 film Taxi Driver, starring Robert de Niro and Jodie Foster. Robert de Niro plays Travis Bickle, a psychotic cab driver in New York City. His attempt to assassinate a politician is thwarted. Through a series of random events, he changes his hostile focus from the politician to the pimp of a child prostitute, played by Foster. He commits mass murder.

The film made news again in 1981 when John Hinkley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Hinkley's psychotic obsession with Jodie Foster's performance in the film reportedly inspired his attack on the President. Schizophrenic individuals, like the rest of us, are influenced by environment, media, family and random events. They don't just interpret those events rationally. For example, years ago, the supermarket chain Alpha Beta had a television slogan, "Tell a friend," to persuade people to shop there. A colleague of mine shared a story about a paranoid schizophrenic who, when told he would be going on a field trip from the hospital to a supermarket, said, "I won't go to Alpha Beta. They want you to 'tell a friend.' I don't want anyone to know where I shop."

According to news reports, Jared Lee Loughner engaged in bizarre, hostile behavior last year at Pima Community College. He later withdrew from the college after campus officials told him he needed a mental health evaluation and clearance before they would allow him to return. He then legally purchased a Glock 9 millimeter semi-automatic weapon and, months later, shot 20 people.

From the evidence reported in the news to date, and from Jared Loughner's disjointed YouTube videos, it appears he suffered from a psychotic disorder. Psychosis consists of a break with reality. The individual's thoughts don't connect with a logical thread. Sometimes they speak in a word salad, as if their thoughts were put into a bowl and randomly tossed. Loughner likely suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is an incurable mental illness, with genetic links, associated with significant destruction of brain tissue over time. Symptoms of the disease include hallucinations (sensing things that are not real) and delusions (false beliefs). The disease usually begins in late adolescence and early adulthood.

It appears Lougner's troubles began in his junior year of high school. That's when he broke up with his girlfriend, dropped out of high school, and slowly began to deteriorate. He allegedly abused drugs and alcohol, developed an interest in guns, and suffered from paranoid delusions. These delusions included the belief in mind control and in secret government conspiracies. Some schizophrenics, plagued by delusions of grandeur, believe they possess special powers or special importance.

Schizophrenics can unnerve us. In addition to the fear of death, most humans instinctively fear madness. The insane person doesn't respond to normal social cues, verbal persuasion or even common-sense safety. We feel helpless and confused about how to deal with their bizarre behavior. However, most mentally ill people never commit acts of aggression. The rate of violent acts for the mentally ill closely matches that of the general population. 

Researchers found common characteristics in those mentally ill people at high risk for violence:
  • Usually males under the age of 43
  • Substance abusers
  • Bipolar or depressed combined with substance abuse
  • Income below $20,000 per year
  • History of family violence, criminal activity, or juvenile detention
  • Victimized, divorced, separated or unemployed in the past year
We can see this list of characteristics and wonder why someone could not stop this attack. To prevent other similar attacks by the mentally ill, we need to support:
Families with a mentally ill loved one often live for decades with a chronic anxiety: "Will he commit suicide?" "How long can she stay in the hospital?" "What programs can help him stay on his medication?" "Will the insurance approve this new medication?" The list of worries and dilemmas goes on and on. In addition to this tsunami of worries, mental illness carries with it a stigma of shame and blame. Some families try to hide the illness, growing more isolated even when they desperately need the help of the community. Many bloggers and pundits blame Lougner's family, deepening their devastating pain.

With education, community and mental health support, many psychotic individuals can lead more productive lives. Some can hold jobs and become self-supporting. Others will need care and support for the rest of their lives. Mental illness is not an individual problem. Mental illness poses a problem for families, communities, nations and international relations. Public figures bear a greater responsibility for the power and influence they wield. In the interest of good judgment, I suggest posing the editorial question, "How would a paranoid schizophrenic gun nut view this ad or speech?" Or ask, WWTBD? (What would Travis Bickle do?)


Cathy Scott said...

Fascinating post, Gina.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate the mental illness information in this post. This is the discussion we need.

As far as curtailing our speech in order to avoid triggering violence in a paranoid schizophrenic, I am less inclined to believe that is going to really be possible or even predictable. I personally would like to see politicians abandoning smear campaigns, which are the one thing that makes *me* see red, but what makes a paranoid schizophrenic see red? Doesn't it depend on the individual and what that individual's own mind is manufacturing itself? I.e., I know of a case where a schizophrenic woman murdered the husband who was desperately trying to help and reassure her; her mind convinced her that he was really evil and was tricking her. A schizophrenic is going to take in information in a very unpredictable and distorted way, are they not?

John Hinckley Jr., as you stated, was inspired by a movie, which I would guess would be a much more likely and pervasive influence than political speech. Are we prepared to censor movies and television programs based on what a schizophrenic might see in them? I'm not saying that wouldn't necessarily be an improvement! But it doesn't seem very likely in our culture.

Dr. Gina Simmons said...

Thank you Cathy and Anonymous for your comments. I agree that we cannot predict precisely what will set off a psychotic individual. Censorship likely won't make us any safer. The violently mentally ill existed before television. They fill our history books. I still think public figures should take a few extra moments and ask that editorial question.

California Girl said...

I have at least four people with bipolar illness in my family. One is distantly related. One became that way after a major head injury. I know others who are the same. My question is this: if they can give you a subdermal drug for birth control, why haven't they invented one for mental illness? Part of the problem is that they take their meds and then think because they are doing well, they no longer need them. They quit taking them and all hell breaks loose.
Another problem is family denial or secrecy. Because so many self medicate with alcohol or street drugs, sometimes families are not aware of what is really going on. Unfortunately, at least one of my cousins is dead because this problem was kept a family secret.

DrGina said...

Your struggle closely connects with that of many families I see who try to help their mentally ill loved ones. Bi-polar poses significant problems for family members because of compliance problems, access to mental health treatment, and the disorder's inherent instability. That's why public education is such an important piece, to lessen the stigma so more sufferers can get the treatment and supervision they need.

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