FRESH IDEAS: Rhetoric can be tipping point for unstable mind

While there is no clear motive for Jared Loughner's alleged murder spree Saturday, officials speculate that the political tensions in the country and in Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' district are at least part of the cause. Emerging information also paints the picture of Jared Loughner as "psychologically unstable."

This early in the investigation we can only really hypothesize about what led to this senseless tragedy but most likely over time we will find that his severe psychological disturbance made him particularly vulnerable to the extreme rhetoric he was exposed or drawn to.

When we hear about these types of tragedies, the accused is often described as "psychologically unstable." What, exactly, does this mean? The following is a brief explanation of a complex function.

One of the ways in which we process "life" is through our thinking. Our thinking is primarily influenced by two processes called thought organization and reality testing.

Thought organization refers to how well we can organize incoming and outgoing information, how well we can organize information into coherent and usable categories, and how well we can access our "mind" to produce work.

Reality testing refers to our ability to see things that occur in reality-based ways, to process information while using the facts of the situation, and to arrive at logical explanations or decisions.

When thought organization or reality testing aren't effective it is usually due to a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, extreme trauma, drug or alcohol use, or a personality disorder. All of us though, fall on a continuum of how well organized or based in reality our thinking is.

"Psychosis" is the general term used when one's thought organization and reality testing have deteriorated so significantly that paranoia, delusions, nonsensical thinking, and auditory or visual hallucinations occur. What is often hard for others to grasp is that when individuals are psychotic they are living in the reality and processes of their own minds and do not have insight that their perceptions are not real.

Compelled to protect themselves against perceived threats of some kind, erratic behaviors, extreme reactions, and aggression can result. Tragedy can strike in rare instances; the FBI estimates that two to three mass shootings such as this occur in the U.S. each year.

Individuals with severe thought disturbances are more vulnerable to, and drawn to, extreme rhetoric, conspiracy theories, etc. These can justify, or fit in with, the distortions in their mind.

Most mentally ill people are not aggressive. And, even those exposing the most divisive political rhetoric out there would never wish for what has happened. This is a moment, though, to learn from in many ways and on many levels. I hope we do.

• Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.


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