In Arizona, anyone concerned can report odd behavior to mental-health experts

Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in the head Saturday morning while hosting an event outside a grocery store. Six people died, and 14 were injured.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 10:32 PM

Under Arizona law, any one of Jared Lee Loughner's classmates or teachers at Pima Community College so concerned about his increasingly bizarre behavior could have contacted local officials and asked that he be evaluated for mental illness and potentially committed for psychiatric treatment.

That, according to local mental health and law enforcement officials, never happened.

"To the best of our knowledge, he was never and is currently not enrolled in our system," said Neal Cash, president of the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, which provides mental health services in Tucson and Pima County for the state. While most of those it serves are on Medicaid, Cash said anyone diagnosed with a serious mental illness would be in its system.

The Saturday shootings that left six dead and gravely injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) has prompted a wave of questions about whether the attack could have been prevented. Could those who knew Loughner, the alleged shooter, somehow have stepped in as they saw signs of his instability?

Mental health experts say that, unlike many other states - where little can be done to force an unstable person into treatment until he or she becomes violent and poses a danger to themself or others - Arizona is different.

Any person in Arizona can petition the court for a psychiatric evaluation solely because a person appears to be mentally ill and doesn't know it.

"When people appear mentally ill or show some instability, how do you get them to [mental health] resources if the system doesn't know those people are out there?" Cash said. "Our crisis line is manned 24/7. Anyone concerned about his behavior could have called at any time."

Cash added that he had no information on whether Loughner sought out private treatment covered by private insurance. "If he was interfacing with other mental health officials, I don't know about that," Cash said.

As a fuller picture emerges of Loughner, much attention has been focused on his behavior at Pima Community College. Officials there said the school overhauled its student code of conduct to better identify potentially violent students after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, when a gunman fatally shot 32 teachers and students before killing himself.

However, citing privacy laws and the investigation, the officials would not say whether Loughner's behavior triggered any action that might have resulted in a referral for treatment at the counseling service on campus or elsewhere.

College officials confirmed that Loughner attended the school from the summer of 2005 through the fall of 2010. They said he was suspended for violating the college's code of conduct after five disruptions in classrooms and libraries on two different campuses and after the discovery of a YouTube video Loughner posted claiming the college was illegal under the U.S. Constitution.

On Sept. 29, two college police officers delivered a letter of suspension to Loughner at the house where he lives with his parents, college officials said. After meeting with administrators Oct. 4, the college sent a second letter Oct. 7 indicating Loughner could return to campus only if he resolved his violations and obtained "mental health clearance indicating, in the opinion of a mental health professional, his presence at the College does not present a danger to himself or others," the college said in a statement.

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