Lessons From Aaron Alexis
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09-25-13 Category: Mental Health

Aaron Alexis Mental Health
As more and more information comes out about Aaron Alexis, the man who went on a shooting rampage at a navy facility on September 16th, one significant theme is beginning to develop.  Mr. Alexis was not simply an angry man, or a random disgruntled employee, rather he was a man plagued by a history of serious mental issues, much of which went too far below the radar.  As more details come out about Mr. Alexis’s past, it is becoming clear that he was suffering from mental health issues throughout his life.

Mr. Alexis’ unfortunate story began at least as far back as 2004.  That year, he was arrested in Seattle, accused of shooting out the tires of a man’s truck in an anger-fueled “blackout,” according to a Seattle Police Department report.  He told investigators he believed the man, a construction worker, was mocking him, but had no memory of shooting out the tires, the report said.  Furthermore, investigators later discovered that Mr. Alexis had anger management problems associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, which he suffered after working “as an active participant in rescue attempts” during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Rhode Island Police Incident

More recently, Mr. Alexis’ behavior and thinking was again brought into question when Rhode Island police responded to a harassment complaint at a Marriott hotel. There, Alexis told them that someone “had sent three people to follow him and to talk, keep him awake and send vibrations into his body,” a police report said.  Soon after, Mr. Alexis sought help from a Veterans Affairs hospital in Rhode Island, his second such visit to a VA facility. Sources differ on why Alexis wanted help, saying he was either hearing voices or having trouble sleeping.

While there is no way to determine exactly what caused Aaron Alexis to commit his heinous act at the Navy Yard, we can now see that there was indeed a pattern and history of violence in his background, violence that largely went under the radar.  What is most troubling about this whole situation, however, was that Mr. Alexis could not get the help he needed and that his storied history was never pieced together by professionals or others.

Mental Health Spotlight

One benefit, if it can so be called, from this episode is that it once again mental health services are in the spotlight.  Mr. Alexis’ story shows us that mental health services need to be better coordinated and that even non-professionals can play a big part in identifying mental illness and helping cure or manage it.  In this case, Mr. Alexis’ various encounters with police and other services, mental health or the military, should have created a broad enough picture of some serious issues to at least prevent him from legally obtaining a weapon, if not requiring treatment.  However, as is often the case, the various parties involved in his episodes either did not properly document Mr. Alexis’ or did not pass along the information to others.

Unfortunately this lack of communication occurs far too often in the field of mental health.  When an individual encounters a mental health issue, a variety of resources may be involved, such as police, physicians and family members, along with other treatment systems, like the VA or centers like Sovereign Health.  With so many players, it’s easy to see how information can get lost from one group to another.  It is essential, therefore, that we of the mental health industry look for better ways to communicate both inside and outside of treatment.

Non-Professionals Role In Mental Health 

Mr. Alexis’ case also brings to light the pivotal role that non-professionals can, and often do play in mental health issues.  Often friends and family members are the first to notice patterns of mental health issues, even if there is no obvious “history.”  Bringing loved ones into the discussion, by both encouraging conversation on mental health issues and by reaching out to all types of people, may have helped Mr. Alexis find the treatment he needed, along with so many others.  There is no question that a greater push is needed to bring more friends and family members into the greater “treatment team” as early as possible.

While we will never truly know the reason for Aaron Alexis’ terrifying attack on the DC Navy Yard, perhaps his story and this terribly episode can help us have a true discussion of what improvements we can make to our mental health services as a nation.  With a real effort perhaps we can all help ensure that another tragic case like this never happens again.

Blog Post By: Jared Friedman

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