Category Archives: Crime

Homicide, Suicide and Mental Health: Time for a Rethink?

In the wake of yesterday’s ONS crime statistics revealing a major drop in homicide rates in England and Wales, has the ‘inquiry culture’ made any significant impact on mental health-related tragedies, and is it time for a rethink? 

If you’ve worked in front-line mental health at any time in the last two decades, there’s a small but not insignificant chance an independent inquiry has shone it’s torch at you, your colleagues and your collective role in a homicide.

Yesterday’s announcement suggests a downward trend in homicide rates, but before 2011-2012 there were between five and six hundred and fifty homicides recorded in England each year (National Confidential Inquiry, 2012). On average around ten per cent of these deaths will have been committed by a ‘psychiatric patient’, or to be more precise, by a perpetrator who has been in contact with mental health services within a year prior to the offence.

This relatively small contribution may come as a surprise to the more indignant ends of the media. And it is hardly a damming indictment of community care, especially as only a proportion of ‘psychiatric’ killings will have been committed as a direct result of psychiatric pathology such as command hallucinations or paranoid beliefs.  A mentally ill killer doesn’t necessarily kill for reasons that are different from anyone else.

Nonetheless, this is still fifty or sixty people a year dying at the hands of someone whose name is on the books of a mental health professional, and the question of preventability is one that must be asked.  And it does. Dozens of times a year.

Independent inquiries into mental illness related homicides were made mandatory in the wake of the Ritchie Report of 1994. In the light of criticism about their continued usefulness, not to mention the weighty invoices for an army of psychiatrists , barristers and other senior personnel who make up the panels, the ‘mandatoriness’ was slightly relaxed in 2005, but still we are seeing dozens of publications a year of inquiry reports which were once headline news but are now so common as to be barely noticed.
Homicide is not the only adverse event to trigger independent inquiries. Suicides, sudden unexpected deaths and safeguarding events can all be subject to scrutiny where circumstances dictate, generating what is now a vast library of reports, findings and recommendations. We are all aware of the benefit of hindsight, and there’s certainly no shortage of it here.
Lack of communication, inter-agency squabbling, non-adherence to the Care Programme Approach and poor or non-existent discharge procedures are all among the usual suspects to appear within the panel’s cross-hairs. We will also read frequent accounts of agencies such as the police, mental health professionals and social services treating each other as if they had a communicable disease. 

But other themes are also present in abundance. Professional disinterest. A ‘more than my jobs worth, guv’ attitude. Rigid bureaucracy and referral criteria trumping good clinical judgement. Oh, and we nearly forgot a lack of common sense and sheer incompetence.

We should all by now have learnt our lessons. We should have developed evidence-based, multi-agency training in prevention of violence and suicide. We should have developed collaborative approaches to working with crisis and risk involving everyone within a community who works with mental health: Community Mental Health Teams, the Police, Parmamedics and Support Workers. Everyone.

We should have developed collaborative, reflective approaches to analysis of adverse events and ‘near misses’ which involve service users and those so often excluded from deliberations, the families and carers. And we should have developed robust policies and procedures which mean risk work becomes a key clinical skill and not the ticking of a few boxes on a side of A4.
But while there is certainly evidence that care providers have followed recommendations at an organisational level, have eighteen years of automatic inquiries really made an impact at the sharp end of care and support? Are inquiry recommendations actually being followed and learnt from in day-to-day practice, or are the reports offering little more than a handsome hourly fee for their very expensive authors?

There is no evidence of any decline in the rate and frequency of homicides, suicides or other adverse events. Suicides are becoming less frequent among in-patients, but is this due to improved care on the wards or to the fact that trusts have followed previous advice from the NCI in removing ligature points such as curtain rails? And why has there been a rise in suicides among patients in ‘home care’? 

The faults highlighted by countless inquiries and repeated here are still happening day in and day out. I don’t need a literature review to know this – I’m a trainer. I see and hear the horror stories from staff all over the UK and from a wide variety of settings. So if these are the problems, where are the solutions?

I have two very simple, affordable suggestions for mental health care which may (if you’ll forgive the drama) save lives.

Firstly I would very strongly support the suggestion that we now abandon the independent inquiry system and hand responsibility for the scrutiny of adverse events to the National Confidential Inquiry. One centrally organised body using standardised methodologies to examine homicides, suicides and sudden unexpected deaths, feeding their work directly into a programme of training and research that directly links evidence with day-to-day reality.

Secondly, I think it’s time for a change in how front-line mental health services work with risk. We’ve seen painful evidence over many years of how the collective will, for a variety of reasons, make mistakes and allow tragedies to occur.

Perhaps it’s time for an individual response. A Risk Practitioner.  Or even, if you prefer the dramatic, a Troubleshooter.

An experienced individual who knows what can happen, has an intimate awareness of the inquiries and evidence base, can coach, micro-teach and work alongside front-line colleagues, and has the ability to link agencies, teams and individuals together  in a way that we seem patently unable to do when left to our own devices.

If this sounds rather fanciful, it’s been done. Unfortunately the very partisan forces that so often plague inter-agency working brought my particular project to a premature close, but as a Forensic CPN I once worked closely with an Assertive Outreach Team fulfilling pretty much the job description outlined above. There was of course a little more to it than that which might have benefitted from formal audit or research, but as proof of concept it worked extremely well.

The tragedy of psychiatric disaster is far more real and important than any number of statistics or findings or recommendations. If even only a few of these events is preventable, then surely we should be sitting up and taking notice of how to do the precenting. Maybe it really is time to try something new. 

This post was written as part of a Risk and Mental Health project currently in preparation by the author

The Occasional Tragedy of Mental Health

A Problem of Understanding
I used to work with people who had committed the most serious and often disturbing of crimes. All in all I spent twelve years in very close proximity to patients in secure psychiatric units. I played cards with killers, badminton with rapists and darts with men you had last seen played by an actor on Crimewatch.

I’ve been shopping with people who hadn’t seen a town centre for twenty years. I’ve handed out tissues to those still haunted by what they had done, and locked up patients in small secure rooms as the voices commanded them to kill anyone within range of a pool cue.

I’ve had the sort of conversations you could and should never forget with fellow human beings who have done unimaginable things. But one thing I have never done is to understand.

Not for want of trying or because I wasn’t clever enough. I ‘got’ the psychopathology of the psychopath. I ‘got’ the biochemistry of psychosis. I ‘got’ the medical model and the social model. But faced with someone who had tortured a child, blown off a neighbours head with a shotgun, or knocked nails into someone’s skull, I simply failed to truly understand.

Thirteen-year old Casey Kearney was walking through a park on her way to a friend’s. She was stabbed by a woman walking in the opposite direction. It wasn’t a frenzied attack, just one brief blow with a one of two kitchen knives purchased earlier that day by a woman called Hannah Bonser, who simply continued on her way before turning up at a local mental health resource to confess to what she called “a silly thing” and hand over her knives.

This was an appallingly random act of extreme violence. Bonser would have expended more time and energy stopping to ask her victim for the time. For any parent to imagine the deliberate killing of a child is not only incomprehensible, but entirely unimaginable for any more than the most fleeting of dark moments. But Casey Kearney’s family have had to deal with this reality since February 14 this year, and have no doubt tried and failed to make sense of the senseless.

Making Sense of the Senseless
Hannah Bonser was yesterday convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. She will serve an absolute minimum of twenty-two years before being able to seek parole. Those not involved with the case might have been surprised that Bonser did not receive a Mental Health Act hospital order and a conviction for Manslaughter rather than Murder.

After all, this was a bizarre and random killing committed by someone well-known to mental health services for some time before the event. Her legal defence argued she was suffering from Paranoid Schizophrenia at the time of the offence, and that her responsibility for the crime was therefore ‘diminished.’ The jury did not accept this argument.

But as with all homicides involving mental health service users, an independent inquiry will now take place in the aftermath of the trial. Like the dozens that have preceded it since the mid-1990s (when such inquiries became mandatory) the report will provide a public and detailed account of Bonser’s relationship with mental health services in the months and years prior to February 14th 2012.

As both a practitioner and trainer who has read with depressing regularity how tragedy has resulted from the failure of various services involved in mental health care over the years, I very much hope we will not be hearing from the usual suspects. Failures of communication, lack of information sharing, poorly motivated professionals, bureaucracy. All these and more have become depressingly familiar to readers of such reports, but seldom appear to change the way we work with potentially dangerous people.

What’s in a Diagnosis?
For some months prior to the killing, a close friend of Hannah Bonser had noted how her behaviour had become increasingly unusual. She claimed that her flat was possessed by demons. Her self-care deteriorated and she travelled down to London, where she slept rough and searched for a character called ‘Simon of Lambeth’. She was detained under the Mental Health Act before being transferred back to a Doncaster hospital, but was discharged shortly afterwards. Life appears to have become increasingly disjointed and chaotic. Shortly before Casey’s death, her killer had presented to mental health staff stating she was hearing voices commanding her to harm others.

Her legal defence was that her actions were driven by severe mental illness. It’s well beyond the scope of a short blog post to attempt to describe what we mean by this, but on current evidence we could state the following. That at the time of the offence her brain was showing signs of abnormal structural and biochemical functioning and was interacting with an environment which to Hannah Bonser would be a very, very different place to how most of you reading this would experience that environment. It may have been quite a terrifying place. Perhaps terrifying enough to randomly stab a complete stranger.

The prosecution argued that Bonser was not psychotic but suffered from a Personality Disorder. We know even less about the inner workings of PD than Schizophrenia, and argue about it a great deal more. This diagnosis would imply that the person is fully aware of one’s actions and knows exactly what they are doing, even when what they are doing is indescribably unpleasant.

The Sadness of Madness v Badness
The difference between severe mental illness and personality disorder is characterised by some as the ‘mad versus bad’ dichotomy. This is a very false dichotomy. In fact, it’s not a dichotomy at all.  The opposite of ‘mad’ is ‘sane’ and the opposite of bad is of course ‘good’. It’s an old and rather stale argument often used by lazy mental health professionals to characterise the difference between behaviours which are driven by ‘genuine’ and ‘proper’ mental illness on the one hand, and behaviours which are apparently ‘manipulative’ or ‘attention seeking’ on the other.

Being ‘Mad’ is beyond both the conscious control of the sufferer, and the moral judgement of others. It warrants our intervention, diagnosis and treatment, particularly with pharmacological means which offer a quick and relatively simple solution to ‘Mad.’

But ‘Bad’ is just, well, bad. If it isn’t ‘Mad’, isn’t a psychiatric problem, we needn’t offer an intervention. Personality Disorder is ‘Bad’ and this is what Hannah Bonser is now judged to be. She’ll go to prison not hospital.

The jury at Doncaster Crown Court accepted medical evidence suggesting Bonser suffered from a Personality Disorder. Essentially, she knew what she was doing.

The conception from both the public and aggrieved families is often that a ‘proper’ sentence is infinitely more acceptable than the apparently soft option of a psychiatric bed. Part of the argument around this case was that the stabbing of Casey Kearney was a calculated and manipulative act designed to achieve Bonser’s demands for hospital admission. To have received a Mental Health Act section might have been seen as a triumph for Bonser’s manipulation, and one could understand how that might be seen as unacceptable by many.

To Inquire or Not Inquire?
Nonetheless, an inquiry will now take place and the report will tell us something of how a family have lost a 13-year old girl who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The court has already delivered it’s verdict on Hannah Bonser, but the inquiry will hopefully reveal a highly complex interaction between a twenty-six year old woman, her troubled background, her environment, her mental state, the services she turned to for help and the killing of Casey Kearney.

There are some who now call for the end of mandatory inquiries into each and every mental health related homicide. I wouldn’t disagree. It’s a hugely expensive procedure which, as we’ve already seen, throws up very similar conclusions time after time without seemingly making much difference.

But perhaps we should continue to study events such as these which, incredibly rare as they are, remain sufficiently horrific to merit the deepest scrutiny and may help us to at least try to prevent the preventable in future.

Talking Out of One’s Arse: The News Media and Armchair Psychology

Daniel Bartlam was yesterday sentenced to life imprisonment for killing his mother. Apparently inspired by screen violence in the guise of horror movies and TV soap storylines, he’s inevitably been dubbed the ‘Coronation Street Killer’ and provoked the now customary howl of online indignation. So far, so predictable. But along with the indignation has come a digital tidal wave of armchair diagnosis. The cod psychology inspired by this case features ‘inner worlds’, ‘trauma’,  the effect of pre-watershed television violence and, most alarmingly, the possibility of child abuse as a mitigating factor. But one feature all these armchair theories have in common is the almost complete lack of history, evidence or narrative around either Bartlam or the offence itself.

Shortly after the sentencing of Bartlam, The Guardian’s Comment is Free section ran an article titled Why Children Kill Parents. Accompanying the piece was the now familiar and rather haunting photograph of Daniel Bartlam. Philippa Perry, the writer of the piece, is a psychotherapist and author of a book called Couch Fiction.  She apparently specialises in work with adult survivors of childhood abuse. If she had any specific experience working with violent young people, or even ‘children who kill parents’, it didn’t appear on her author profile. At the time the piece was first published* her profile also mentioned that she was married to well-known artist Grayson Perry.

I was puzzled from the start. If The Guardian wanted a companion piece and online discussion around the Bartlam case why not find someone from the world of forensic child and adolescent psychology? And what was the relevance of the author’s marital status? This seemed the editorial equivalent of asking me to write a ‘pop-science’ piece on quantum mechanics because I use a mobile phone, or inviting Frank Lampard’s ex-girlfriend onto Strictly Come Dancing because well, she used to be Frank Lampard’s girlfriend.

To her credit the author made no attempt to ‘diagnose’ Bartlam, and presumably did her best to quickly bang out a few hundred words at the request of The Guardian’s CiF editor. She more or less stuck to her area of expertise which is helping adults who’ve been abused. But is that telling us anything about ‘Why Children Kill their Parents’? And more pertinently, did the author have anything to say about a case where there is absolutely no reported evidence of abuse as an explanatory factor?

No, of course not.

But what alarmed me even more than the article itself was the swarm of armchair psychologists, usually hiding behind silly avatars and even sillier acronyms, gathered online to spout thousands of words on everything from John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory to how the victim should never have bought her son an iMac. In keeping with the article itself, abuse was a constant theme from our cohort of keyboard shrinks despite no evidence whatsoever that this was in any way connected to the case.

At this moment in time nobody but those closely involved with the Bartlam case knows anything about this boy nor the circumstances of the offence beyond the bits and scraps reported by the news outlets.

For the online media (of which The Guardian is only one example) to be spreading and encouraging ill-informed or completely non-informed speculation as to how a 14-year old boy can become a hammer-wielding murderer is more than just pissing into a very strong wind. It is harming those personally involved in the case, harming our understanding of violent young people, and spreading even more ill-informed psychological rubbish than is already the case. 

And that’s a mighty big case.

*The Grayson Perry reference has now been removed from the author’s Guardian profile. 

Supporting People: Not

Many local authorities are now slashing and burning their way through vital community services, leaving highly vulnerable people without essential support. Thanks to Keith Cooper and the Guardian Housing Network for inspiring yet another sleepless polemic, mostly aimed at ‘Dave’  

It’s not often I start a post with a big, fat, steaming turd of a lie, but let’s do it anyway. I offer my apologies to all turds for the comparison. They really don’t deserve it:

“And I want to say to British people clearly and frankly this; if you are elderly, if you are frail, if you are poor, if you are needy, a Conservative government will always look after you” David Cameron: 4th May 2010

Courtesy of The Guardian

I remember watching with awe and amazement Cameron spouting this mantra over and over again on the pre-election campaign trail. He said it on the live TV debates. He said it on visits to Day Centres, usually with sleeves rolled up and gurning over a girl in a wheelchair. He said it bloody everywhere to anyone who would listen, and I remember thinking how remarkable it was that the leader of the Conservative Party was starting to sound like the hybrid spawn of Ghandi, Mother Theresa and that nice lady in Borehamwood who devotes her life to saving hedgehogs.

But ‘spending’ and ‘cuts’ were never far from the spiel either, Cameron’s point being that whatever they had to do to reverse the public sector overspend of the previous mob, it’s okay. Vulnerable people wouldn’t suffer. “A Conservative government will always look after you.”

The awful truth of what is happening to community care has been slapping me in the face like a wet fish ever since the grinning Dave and Nick garden party at No.10 way back in May last year. I earn a living running courses for social care staff up and down the UK, and I notice things. I notice how much less cheerful are the delegates who come to my courses. Is it my crap jokes? Have people really become homicidal at the mere sight of a Powerpoint slide? Well, probably yes, but this hasn’t been the reason for the pervasive gloom in my training rooms. 

The fact is, I’m working with large groups of people who are not only attending the last course they’ll ever get under the previous training budget, but more seriously are facing the prospect of reapplying for their own jobs, or being handed a P45 and a note of thanks ‘for all their valuable service’.

These aren’t the bureaucrats and middle-managers with incomprehensible titles and Mickey Mouse job descriptions. These are front-line, face-to-face support workers who do the often gutty work of helping people who really can’t get on in life without the help of that Warden, Carer or Support Worker who helps out with anything from benefit claims to suicide prevention. 
But sometimes something is so blindingly, dazzlingly obvious that it never really hits home until you see it in black and white. On paper or on a laptop screen, the effect is the same. And yesterday, thanks to The Guardians Housing Network, I read the confirmation of all that I’ve been hearing these last sixteen months:

Courtesy of The Guardian: Author Keith Cooper 22.8.11

Supporting People cuts leave housing sector unable to help most vulnerable

Now I can certainly help you understand why a 17-year old service user stubs out fag butts on his arm or help you devise a risk assessment and management strategy for your supported housing service, but mention ‘ring fencing’ or ‘local housing allowance’ and I’m likely to look at you as if you’re spouting the combined works of Stephen Hawking in Mandarin Chinese. But I do know a little about Supporting People, the programme of funding established specifically to provide community support for vulnerable people. 

People whose lives are shattered by mental illness, drugs, alcohol, homelessness or often a bit of each. Ex-offenders, people with learning disabilities or the frail elderly are also the very folk supported by Supporting People, usually with the invaluable provision of four walls and a roof, and a regular visit of one of those front-line, face-to-face support workers.

Supporting People (SP) is a fund distributed to local authorities to spend on housing and support provision for vulnerable people. The providers may be in-house local authority staff, but are more likely to be independent providers or charities who receive a portion of the local SP pot every year to help those who really can’t get by without support. The Guardian report highlights the massive re-allocation by some (not all) local authorities of SP budgets away from their original targets and into … well, I don’t know what, but it certainly isn’t going to be spent on providing sheltered accommodation and a warden for 80-year old Doris, or helping Gary get his life back on track after a 5-year jail term. 

David Cameron and Housing Minister Grant Shapps will undoubtedly argue that their government have barely touched SP funding (true), and it’s those nasty councils who’ve pulled the rug right from under the already unsteady feet of the vulnerable. But this sounds to me like Hitler blaming the Holocaust on a few SS officers who got a bit over enthused with the gas tap.

But back to my real world – the training room, where I spend coffee breaks and lunchtimes staring disbelievingly at yet another support worker telling me “Yes, Connor, this is a very useful course, but to be honest I’ll be stacking shelves in Tesco in six months so there won’t be much call for your insights on Dual Diagnosis.”

And I ask, rather fearfully, what will happen to the twenty or so clients on their caseload when they’ve chopped the staff allocation in half? “Don’t know. Haven’t a clue” is invariably the answer, but neither of us needs a crystal ball to imagine the misery, the mayhem, the reversal of fortunes and the undoing of what often amounts to years of hard work by a support worker who, whether at the end of a phone or the end of a sofa, is quite possibly turning lives around and staving off inevitable chaos. 

I often use a technique called Mind Mapping to help staff think about the work they’ve done, often for a particularly difficult or vulnerable client. There are inspiring success stories, the odd dismal failure, but more often the seemingly humdrum case of a service user encouraged to reduce their intake of White Lightning from four litres a day to two. 

I ask the support worker a simple question: “Where would this tenant be if it weren’t for your support and a roof over their head?” The answer is usually death, prison, homelessness or very long spells detained in a psychiatric unit.

With rapidly diminishing training budgets and fewer and fewer people left to do training with, I don’t expect to be asking these questions for very much longer, or to be talking job security over coffee and biscuits. But if I were, I’d expect the answers to feature less and less inspiration and more and more White Lightning.

Thanks for that, Dave.

Jared Loughner and the Gabrielle Giffords Incident: Schizophrenia Unravelled

This is an image of Jared Lee Loughner taken shortly after his arrest for the attempted assassination of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the killing of six others including a nine-year old girl and the shooting of twelve other victims.

Remind you of anyone? The shaved head, the staring eyes and that entirely inappropriate smirk. A movie director couldn’t come up with a more perfect casting for the role of the classic, crazed lunatic. Jack Nicholson may have had more hair but his character in The Shining is not a million miles away from the caricature of Loughner’s grinning, haunting image. But unlike Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, Loughner killed and maimed people for real. And this is one tragedy fuelled not by ghosts, but by a severe and devastating illness called Schizophrenia.

Yesterday Loughner was judged by an Arizona court to be ‘unfit to plead’. The UK mental health system is in many ways very different to that in most American states, but it’s a basic fundamental of most judiciaries that an accused cannot stand trial if they’re unable to understand the workings of a trial or to be able to communicate meaningfully with their legal defence. It is reported that Loughner has been ‘paranoid’ and distrustful toward his legal representatives, and his bizarre behaviour in court yesterday would certainly suggest someone who would struggle to co-operate with the rigours of any trial, let alone a case as high profile as this.

Medical reports submitted to the court reveal that Loughner has been diagnosed with a severe mental illness called Schizophrenia. He may be many thousands of miles away but Schizophrenia is Schizophrenia in whichever part of the world it manifests, generally at a rate of around one in a hundred of the population.

And other than the fact that he was able to buy weapons and ammunition as easily as we in the UK can pick up a pair of scissors, the history, the behaviour, the disturbed thoughts and the resulting tragedy are as familiar to us as the language we share. But it’s the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding conditions such as Schizophrenia which also struck me as being a common theme to both sides of the Atlantic. A quick summary of comments left on the Yahoo News website suggested that many Americans believe Loughner should be strapped to the nearest electric chair and plugged into the national grid. Asap. Crazy or otherwise.

If you’re already convinced there’s no such thing as a psychiatric defence even to a crime as horrific as Loughner’s, then you may as well click away now and take a look at Photoshopped cats dancing to Justin Bieber. 

But as a UK mental health trainer I’d like to take you on a brief tour around an illness which very, very occasionally leads to events like this, but more often results in despair, loneliness, shattered lives and in some cases death. Not of other people but of the Schizophrenic him or herself. If you’re willing to persevere, read on.  

What is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a severe, psychotic illness which affects approximately 1% of the population worldwide, including Jared Loughner. ‘Psychosis’ or ‘psychotic’ is one of those horribly misused words beloved of tabloid sub-editors as a shorthand for ‘dangerous’ or deranged’. To be psychotic is to be detached from reality, usually as a result of a mental illness, to the extent that the person becomes trapped in a mental world which is not only very real (and often terrifying) to them, but bizarre and incomprehensible to those of us on the outside not sharing this strange reality.

There are critics who object to the labelling of someone like Loughner as ‘Schizophrenic’. They would rather see mental illness as a complex collection of problems and expressions of distress as opposed to a neat little box of medical symptoms. While it’s certainly true that our key diagnostic ‘bibles’ such as DSM-IV and ICD-10 promote disorders such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (aka moody teenager) or Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (aka your partner doesn’t fancy a shag), the tendency for psychiatry to medicalise the tiniest tic of human behaviour does at times lead itself to ridicule and there are plenty of examples of the psychiatric ‘system’ treating the diagnosis rather than the person.  

Personally I have little problem with the term Schizophrenia. It’s a distinct form of mental illness clearly describing for hundreds (if not thousands) of years much of the disordered thought, conflicting emotions and perplexing behaviour of people like Jared Loughner.

What are the effects (or symptoms) of Schizophrenia?
Auditory hallucinations are perhaps the first common feature of Schizophrenia to be happily reeled off by the exam room student psychiatrist. The rest of us just refer to ‘hearing voices’.

Voices are neither ubiquitous nor necessary for a diagnosis of Schizophrenia. If you’re hearing the voice of your partner right now telling you to get off that bloody laptop and go do something a little more useful, this may be for real (in which case you’d better save the rest of this for later and do as he or she says!) or the sort of imaginary voice that many of us hear or live with without need for particular concern.

It is difficult to tell outwardly that a person is hearing voices. Unless they’re responding verbally to their voices or laughing/grimacing at what they can hear, or decide to actually tell someone about the voice(s) in their head the soundtrack of Schizophrenia is often a private conversation.

Interestingly, the word ‘hallucination’ may have become something of a misnomer. We are now aware that the brain’s audio pathways respond to ‘hallucinations’ in the same way it responds to sounds that are as real as the radio playing away in the background as I write this. So the voice of God, or Barack Obama or Satan may be a little more real to the Schizophrenia sufferer than the term ‘hallucination’ may suggest. 

Jared Loughner’s psychiatric notes were not released to the public so we have no way of knowing whether he heard voices. It is quite feasible that he was receiving what are known in the trade as ‘command hallucinations’ to do what he did. 

What is not in dispute is the very strange, erratic behaviour he was presenting to everyone that came across him in the years and months prior to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and the eighteen other targets of his rage. For some years following his premature departure from college he was reported as displaying an increasing preoccupation with politicians and their shortcomings. Now he definitely isn’t alone on this one. While this doesn’t warrant a psychiatric diagnosis on it’s own merit (imagine the waiting lists for a consult), the significant aspect here is the increasingly focused descent into an all-encompassing obsession, where all that mattered where his own particular objects of attention. As can be seen in what has become a macabre YouTube hit, Loughner became fixated on subjects such as ‘grammar’ and ‘currency’ and the descent of the American dream.

This sort of odd, incomprehensible behaviour is driven by what mental health professionals call thought disorder. Loughner’s strange, jumbled and rather macabre videos paint a picture of just the sort of thought disorder that will be familiar to anyone who has known or worked with a Schizophrenia sufferer. What is said, done (and in Loughner’s case) written may seem like a random collection of words and repetitive ideas, but in the mind of the Schizophrenic they make perfect sense. It’s the thought disorder and behaviour propelled by those thoughts which, often accompanied by voices, become the visible face of someone suffering a severe psychotic illness.

What causes Schizophrenia?
Neuroscience, genetic heredity and good old ‘nurture’ all appear to play an important role in the development of the illness, but long-term studies suggest that a genetic potential for the illness is by no means a guarantee that the symptoms will erupt into Schizophrenia.

When Schizophrenia does emerge, it does so usually in late adolescence or early adulthood. We have known for many years how the environment of a younger person who may already be susceptible to Schizophrenia can play a vital role in flicking the ‘On Switch’ for the effects of psychosis.

It is well reported that Loughner had quite a troubled childhood and was an enthusiastic teenage user of Cannabis and hallucinogenic substances such as Magic Mushrooms, although his use of drink and drugs came to an abrupt end some years before the murders, quite possibly as a response to the increasingly puritanical and quasi-religious ideas that were coming to dominate his thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It has been widely reported that drugs can ‘cause’ Schizophrenia, but this has yet to be proved and is almost certainly not the case. What is looking more likely is that heavy substance use does play a role in impacting an individual’s susceptibility to mental illness, particularly where the young brain has yet to physically mature.

How come he’s ‘mad’ but could drive a car, buy a gun, make videos and post them on YouTube?
If you’ve seen Loughner’s YouTube postings and read or seen the accounts of his descent into illness from people who knew him well, you may well wonder how someone this ill can possibly drive a car, buy ammunition from a Walmart, deal with a traffic cop who stopped him for jumping a red light, and know that a particular politician will be in a certain place at a certain time one Saturday morning. He also has the skills to upload his video contributions to the world wide web.

Well, Schizophrenia involves an unravelling of the personality (not a split personality) and a brain which almost certainly would look slightly malformed and peculiar to the expert eye armed with an MRI scanner. But it only takes a quick skim through Google or YouTube to see that mental illness has little effect on an individual’s ability to perform tasks such as using the internet, uploading a video or driving a car. 

In the UK, one of our most well-known serial killers drove an articulated lorry during a killing spree which led to the violent death of thirteen women. Peter Sutcliffe claimed to have killed his victims as a direct command from the voice of God and was diagnosed with Schizophrenia shortly after his conviction. He remains in a maximum security mental hospital many years later and will never be released. Severe mental illness is not necessarily a barrier to performing complex tasks.

In Conclusion
It may seem strange to a British mental health professional that someone so clearly unwell and tormented by psychosis has not yet been treated with, for example, anti-psychotic medication during the four months of his incarceration, but a severe and chronic shortage of in-patient psychiatric beds means we in the UK are in no position to moralise over this state of affairs.

It would appear from reports that Loughner will now be located at a secure psychiatric facility in an attempt to relieve enough of his symptoms to allow further attempts at a trial later in the year.

A mental illness such as that experienced by Jared Loughner is not to be wished on anyone. Our current drug and psychological treatments are far from perfect and will probably remain so for many years until psychologists and neuro-scientists are better able to advance the understanding of what causes the sort of cataclysmic events seen in Arizona this January. If it’s true that Loughner had a troubled childhood this would have corollaries with many mentally ill people who in turn become violent and just goes to show we cannot look purely at neurotransmitters and genes in explaining his extreme aggression.

It should also be stated very clearly that for every Jared Loughner there are hundreds if not thousands of people just as disordered, distressed and bewildered who will be far more likely to harm themselves either by violence or self-neglect than injure another human being.

This man suffers from a severe mental illness and may possibly have other underlying personality problems. He has planned and committed a crime which has ruined the lives of many, many people, but I hope this post has made you condemn a little less and understand a little more.