Jared Loughner and the Gabrielle Giffords Incident: Schizophrenia Unravelled

You’ve seen the Jared Loughner mug shot 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. https://zoomiescanada.com/

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.