USA TODAY: Don’t Blame Loughner’s Parents

I didn’t write the headline, but I did write this Op Ed piece for USA Today. The newspaper posted it on line this morning. The article will be published Monday in the print edition and I will be answering questions via USA CHAT on Monday afternoon beginning at 1:30 p.m. EST. Given the controversy, I expect there to be a lively discussion.   

Don’t BLame Loughner’s Parents


By Pete Earley
What’s wrong with Jared Loughner’s parents? Why didn’t they do something? They must have known. Just look at the photograph of the Tucson shooting suspect. That grin. He’s clearly nuts. They should have raised him better.

These are some of the comments I’ve heard and read on the Internet about Randy and Amy Loughner, whose son has been charged with shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 12 others, and killing six bystanders.

It’s unlikely the Loughners’ statement — that they “don’t understand why this happened”— will soothe the criticism and anger aimed at them. But as the parent of an adult son with a severe mental illness who has been arrested, I can sympathize with the Loughners and testify that there are reasons why a parent can be caught off guard.


Many mental disorders, especially schizophrenia, emerge in late adolescence, when children often are rebelling and separating from their parents by pushing the limits to find their identities. Before my son’s first breakdown, he told me that Presdient George W. Bush was behind the 911 attacks. He had also become obsessed with a female friend and talked endlessly about how they’d soon be married.

Signs aren’t always obvious

Should either of those comments have caused me to think he had a mental disorder? Parents often suspect their adult children are abusing drugs or alcohol if they act strangely, not realizing that substance abuse can be an attempt at self-medicating and a warning sign of a possible mental disorder.

While it’s obvious after a madness-fueled rampage that someone is dangerous, most people with mental illnesses are not violent and are more likely to be victims of crimes than to commit them. Few parents suspect their children are capable of mass murder.

Persons who are sick can also mask their illnesses. Judge Steven Leifman in Miami tells a story about parents who told him their adult son was severely ill, but when he appeared in court, he was polite, articulate and charming. Only when the defendant spotted his parents and became upset, claiming they were strangers spying on him, did Leifman get a glimpse into his confused thoughts.

But news reports said college officials warned the Loughners their son couldn’t return to school until he had had a mental health evaluation. He was scaring other students. Obviously, that’s a huge red flag — if it happened. Federal privacy laws limit how much information colleges can share with parents. Adult children are exactly that: adults. The first time my son and I visited a psychologist, my son turned his chair so that his back was facing the therapist and refused to speak. He didn’t think he was sick.

Why don’t parents call the police when their child refuses to cooperate? I did just that. They arrived and shot my son twice with a Taser when he tried to run away. He had not broken a law and to this day remains bitter toward me for calling them. I’m lucky. A friend’s son was fatally shot by police.

Remember, having a mental illness is not illegal. Nor can anyone, even a parent, force another person into treatment arbitrarily. All states require a person be dangerous to himself or others. What makes Arizona’s law more liberal is it also allows a person to be forced into treatment if he is “persistently or acutely disabled” or “gravely disabled.” Would Loughner have met those criteria? I doubt it, based on my experience, given a police officer stopped him the morning of the shooting and let him go without noticing anything alarming about his behavior. Saying you are concerned about shrines with skulls in the backyard or strange writings is simply not enough in most courts.

Problems with committing someone

Even if parents get their children involuntarily committed, they often don’t get help. Adults can refuse treatment, even when forced into hospitals. You also have to have somewhere to send them. A 2009 study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that Arizona’s mental health services were grossly inadequate. The report was riddled with complaints such as, “When I first tried to get help after attempting suicide, I was told that I wasn’t sick enough to qualify,” and, “There is a six to eight week wait to see (a psychiatrist) as a new patient.” Most states are plagued by long waiting lines because legislators have closed state hospitals and stripped treatment funds to balance budgets.

Perhaps the most hurtful comment leveled at parents is that they should have done a better job raising their child. Would you attack a parent’s child-rearing skills if his son or daughter had cancer. Mental illnesses are just that: illnesses.

Blaming parents is easy, but before you throw that first stone, try walking in our shoes.

Pete Earley is the author of Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness and lives in Fairfax County, Va.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Linda Murphrey says

    Thank you, Pete, for advocating not only for the mentally ill, but for the families. We are all victims of these ravaging brain diseases, as well as victims of criticism. You are correct – until others have walked in our shoes, walking in judgment is not an option.

  2. Mr. Earley, Very very well said! Laws need to be revised and societies outlook on MI needs to be more educated. I have an older sister with this illness and it has not only affected her life but the lives of all family members for the past 30+ years. We are still not far enough away from the old basement days. I’m thankful for people like you that are trying to educate the world and create change for those that can’t help themselves.

  3. Thank you so very much for your advocacy. I have a son the same age as Jared Loughner who has paranoid schizophrenia. We have battled the revolving involuntary commitment door in Virginia for years. This man’s parents have been on my heart this week. Those of us who love people with severe mental illness know so well the stigma and isolation. I cannot imagine what they must be going through. There but the grace of God go I has been my mantra this week.

    • Diane, Thank you and all of you folks on here that have a child with mental illness for having the courage to walk this path of exceptional parenting for your child with grace and dignity. You so eleoquently said, “Those of us who love people with severe mental illness know so well the stigma and isolation. I cannot imagine what they must be going through.” During a video I saw shortly after the Loughners issued their statement, one of their neighbors and his son had the audacity to blame the parents yet again. They alluded to the fact that Jared wasn’t allowed outside to play, so that was part of the problem. As a parent of a beloved child with recently diagnosed Bipolar Disorder, my heart has ached numerous times when my child was playing with the neighbors’ kids, only to have a rage errupt because she felt bullied by the other kids…..part perception, part reality, as obseerved while supervising them. I, too, stopped letting her outside to play with them in order to protect her as well as the other kids. I arranged other play dates with my friends’ kids who were more understanding. Did the Loughner’s neighbors ever stop once to even consider this a reason for Jared’s parents not letting him play? People who have never seen mental illness in their family or friends never will understand the sad, harsh truth. Yet they still appoint themselves authorities on the subject. I remember the days when I was so naive. Thank God I know better now!

  4. Exactly. Once again Pete, you nailed it from a parent’s perspective. Thanks for speaking for so many of us.

  5. Peoplecollector1 says

    Unless a person is clearly homicidal or suicidal, they cant be involuntarily committed. They have them sign a “No Harm Contract” and then send them on their merry way. Parents beg for help but don’t get it.

  6. This is a perspective I had not considered. Well said and very much appreciated.

  7. Well said, as always, Pete.
    We see this so frequently at our busy community mental health agency. People who we all know are ill but are not “ill enough” to be hospitalized or kept in the hospital for any significant length of time. Frustrating for all involved, especially the families. What we do is keep close contact and remain vigilant for the slightest change in behavior or statements made that can give us enough information to write a meaningful psychiatric hold that will have to be honored. Then we collaborate with the hospital team to emphasize the need for that person to get psychiatric intervention.
    Having a child with neurobiological illness changes life as the parent has
    known it before. Although there certainly is hope for positive outcome, the family unit is dealing with a chronic situation that requires ongoing vigilance.
    Thank you for getting your op-ed out there for the public to see.

  8. Thanks Pete. We have a son with Schizophrenia who was diagnosed a year and half ago. Complex problems do not lend themselves to simple answers. My son was rebellious for many years, abused drugs, and was very abusive. When he began to exhibit dillusional and paranoind behaviors, an already dysfunctional relationship became complicated by behavior never experience by us as parents. It is hard enough to work through issues with a child who is simply rebellious. But, add self medication and now paranoid schizophrenic behavior to the mix and parents become overwhelmed with a range of emotions and the stress of th situation that it is almost impossible to know what to do. This disease is hard enough to just understand, much less advocate for and what one quickly discovers is that the mental health system is itself broken and dysfunctional. The odds of finding competent, useful and effective help with your loved one is less than one in ten in my opinion. So to blame the parents reveals the ignorance of the accuser and the tendency to find blame (of the parents) where none may be owed. If the Loughners are like us, they were probably overwhelmed just trying to figure out what was happening to their son, much less what to do about it. Please give these poor folks some slack and some space.

  9. As a sibling of a paranoid schizophrenic who is non compliant with treatment and medication I appreciate how eloquently you put this into words. My sister has been ill for many years and I have watched what it did to my parents and to all of us as a family. I find it very upsetting when an event occurs such as the Arizona tragedy because my first thoughts are not always to the victims but to the perpetrator and mostly to his family. No one can understand unless they have lived it that the thoughts of the mentally ill are delusional to the world but very real to them. When my sister was diagnosed in the 60s the Drs. actually told my mother that it must have been something that she did that caused it. At least we have come a long way from that school of thought but we still have a long way to go to educate the public and make them understand just what you said. It is an illness just like cancer or diabetes

  10. So many people with my same story….Jeff in particular. My brother also abused drugs and I was the one that actually figured out what was wrong with him. It was very difficult to have him finally diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and even harder to find help. He is on medication but is the type that is so bad that it barely helps. My family has lived with this illness for almost 30 years. It amazes me how so many are quick to blame politics or media for Loughner’s actions. Each time a tragedy like this happens I hope more light will be shed on this horrible disease. I certainly don’t know the answers, the system is broken and I certainly don’t expect to see any additional help for my brother in my lifetime. Thank you for this post.

  11. I was saddened to hear all the talk of political rhetoric when I knew immediately the discussion should be about mental illness. You’re the first person I have ever heard speak my own thoughts. My son has yet to be diagnosed for 18 years now. He falls through all the cracks in our system. You touched my heart when I saw you on CNN today. Many times I have gotten him to someone only to see my calm intelligent charming son. Too many times I have tried to share the answers I know because I know him better than anyone on earth – but it sets off his rage. He has never known true happiness in life and he just falls deeper and deeper. I have tried so many different approaches and have had to face that I am not the one who can help him – that he has to decide himself. But I know in my heart that he is incapable of doing that. I live in southern Va and would appreciate any points of contact you could recommend. Thank you so much for speaking out – I am apprehensive of the hope you gave me but I know I can never stop trying.

  12. Thank you for you column in USA Today. I have a son diagnosed with bi-polar about a year ago. We are blessed to have an outstanding mental health facility in our community – I know many are not. In the year since his diagnosis, I have learned much about mental illness. We are fortunate that we have health insurance to cover the cost of his prescriptions and because of that, he is doing well. This has prompted his own interest in Psychology and he hopes to combine that with his Business Major when he begins college next year. I thank you for speaking out for the many families who are struggling with mental illness in some form. Many, including his own pastor, have not had to walk in our shoes and can become judgmental about decisions he has made.

  13. I have not read your work, this is my first visit to your site, but I returned from a week in Tucson, caught much of the local reporting, and it is possible, has been suggested that the home where JL grew up was a troubled one. There are 2 view details to determine, what culpability (not blame) lies with the parents. Please don’t underestimate the effect of the home environment on the brain and brain chemistry…we have a blueprint and the environment makes a difference. I believe as a culture, we are more likely to give parents a pass, to circle the wagons around the family, than to look at the effect of hurting, troubled parents on their children and their development. There are many possibilities, combination of factors that may have led JL to this heinous act…it is too early to rule out any of them. A girlfriend who saw him recently believes that every outburst was staged…that he is not mentally ill, but these were cold blooded, calculated murders. We can’t know at this point, we are all speculating.

  14. Janine FrancoliniJanine says

    Thank you for your incredible advocacy. Your voice is so crucial and we are very grateful for all that you do.

  15. mental illness is like every other illness? This is patently false. Mental illnesses are diagnosed based on the subjective opinion of a mental health professional; who may or not also use others (family, friends or teachers for example) subjective opinions. No tests, to allow for definitive diagnosis. It is the only diagnosis which carries the threat of loss of liberty and life in the treatment of it.

    These two facts make it unlike every other illness.

    • What about the common cold? What test is there that shows a person has a cold? There are only symptoms, just as there are only symptoms of mental illness.

      • How is this relevant to the issue? Your analogy is flawed and based on what? A cold is caused by the rhino virus–verifiable by a laboratory test, although this is seldom done because it is a cold for Christ’s sake! Those diagnosed with colds are not at risk of being court ordered to take drugs which cause akasthisia, neuroleptic malignant syndrome, diabetes, and are potentially FATAL. Nor are they at risk of having their liberty and Constitutional Rights not protected as a result of being diagnosed. People with colds are not further labeled with anosognosia when they object to the “treatment.” Nor does treatment of a cold, some rest and drink plenty of fluids carry the risks of iatrogenic illness and potentially fatal effects of drugs used for schizophrenia. To compare a cold and the treatment for it to a diagnosis of schizophrenia and the standard drug treatment for it, which is ignorant in the extreme. The horrifying effects and trauma experienced by those who have been left out of the discussion of ethics, and effectiveness, and efficacy—and further stigmatized by this failure to include any survivor voices, which are contrary to the drug first and forever policy of NAMI, TAC and the APA. This strategy is suspect on so many levels, it appears to be a treatment strategy developed by those with more than a little Conflict of Interest to protect.