It’s Not Mental, but Behavioral Management Really

I’ve been following with great interest all of the news reports regarding the assignation attempt on Rep.  Gabrielle Giffords.  My heart goes out to her, her family, and to all people who were affected by this senseless act of insanity.

In case you haven’t been following the news, Jared Loughner  is accused of engaging in a shooting rampage at a “Congress on the Corner” a town hall-style event in Tucson, AZ on Saturday that left six dead, including a judge, and severely wounded Rep. Giffords, who apparently was the target of the attack.

I read Loughner used a Glock semiautomatic pistol.  Jeez.  Only 22 and he was able to purchase a gun.  Gun-control proponents once again are calling for stricter laws regarding guns and access to them.  Gun-rights advocates once again purport that more regulation would not have stopped the tragedy.

Don’t know a damn thing about guns and really don’t want to.  I honestly don’t believe that guns really have a place in our society now.  But that’s me – and that’s not what I want to blog about today. 

 What I do want to talk about is what I see as one of the biggest issues in the case which, aside from the obvious need for stricter gun permitting and background checks, is the necessity for stronger  mental health policies and practices.

 All I kept thinking over the weekend and into today was the fact that this young man had to have been mentally ill to do what he did.   And it appears that Loughner does indeed have a history of mental illness. 

 Which it also appears was not attended to.

 What President Obama said in his speech on Wednesday in Arizona really struck a chord with me:

 “When a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations – to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless…already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.”

Let’s exercise our self-government and debate the issue by looking at the fact pattern. 

The kid had issues – he had trouble with the law, got rejected by the military, and college officials canned him because they considered him a threat to other students and faculty.  Apparently the college police were called in five timesto deal with Loughner’s library and classroom disruptions.

The college did right in removing him from the campus.  And they did right in wanting him to undergo a mental health exam to prove he was not a danger to others before they would readmit him.

Michael J. Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said that “the reality is most people with mental illness are not violent.  The issue, frankly, is getting people into treatment. It’s not about guns.”

We may not be able to control the public space, but as HR business professionals we can – and must – control the work space.

There’s nothing wrong with mental illness.  It is what it is.  If it’s in the work space though, we need to make sure it’s diagnosed and there are tools in place to help manage it and any resulting behavior. If you think about it, all health, physical or mental, is behavioral management really.

So, make sure your organization has mental health as a part of its benefits package.  Make sure your organization has some type of employee assistance program (EAP).  Hold stress management seminars for employees; give them a quiet space where they can decompress after a particularly frustrating encounter.  Support work-life balance – and put your organization’s money where it’s mouth is by enacting policies and practices that help employees do just that. 

Also make sure your supervisors document BEHAVIOR, not opinions or personality quirks.  Educate supervisors on the signs of substance abuse, which often will make a person behave differently than he or she normally would.  Teach them how to differentiate between a disgruntled employee and one who is suffering from mental issues.  Even the most even keeled person in the world can experience a mental problem when confronted with a person or event that takes away their control or power. 

Finally, start fostering a work environment of empowerment.  Give employees a level of choice, influence and control they can exercise over the events in their work lives.

After all, it really is about control, self and otherwise.



  1. Well said Heather. Great summary, and list of action items for organizations to follow if they don’t already have them in place. Critical Incident Stress Management and Debriefing are effective ways to support staff following unusually difficult events. In healthcare, they are particularly meaningful.

    • HR Whisperer says:

      Thanks, Jay. There is a lot that we can do and I think your additional suggestions are great. Appreciate you taking the time to comment!

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