Shown on TV monitors, Joel Dvoskin, an assistant clinical professor at the UA School of Medicine's department of psychiatry, answers an audience question. A community forum featuring mental-health professionals was held Wednesday at the UA. KELLY PRESNELL / ARIZONA DAILY STAR

The Jan. 8 shootings in Tucson offer this community the chance to become a leader in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, a panel of mental-health professionals said Wednesday.

The eight experts led a community forum at Centennial Hall and told the audience of about 350 people to go out and engage local residents and politicians in discussions of mental illness in order to make Tucson a healthier, more civil and respectful place.

"This is a conversation that needs to happen not just in Tucson, because of what happened here, but in every city in America," said Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard University.

Some speakers questioned the connection, often made in popular culture, between violence and mental illness, but Dr. Thomas Insel said it should not be taboo to discuss such links.

"We need to recognize that untreated people with mental illness are at greater risk for violence, particularly those with paranoia and command hallucinations," said Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland.

"Denial will never reduce stigma," Insel said. "What we need is to understand all of the facts."

Those include the fact that the number of suicides is remaining steady nationwide while homicides and traffic deaths are declining and lower than the suicide counts, Insel said.

At the event, Insel, a psychiatrist, received the Schorr Family Award for increasing public understanding of mental illness from Tucsonan Si Schorr. A local attorney, Schorr said the Jan. 8th mass shooting, which left six people dead and 13 injured, raised the issue of the balance between protecting the public and helping people with mental illness.

It is tempting to call for forcing more mentally ill people into treatment following such incidents, said Joel Dvoskin, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona and former acting commissioner of mental health for New York state. But that would be unwise at a time when mental-health services are becoming less and less available due largely to budget cuts.

"Right now we should be focusing on having enough mental-health services so that people who want services can get them," Dvoskin said.

A key to successful treatment is diagnosing mental illness early, experts said. In many cases, the obvious symptoms of mental illness emerge years after the disease has started to take hold, when it is easiest to successfully start treatment, Insel said.

Teenagers are checked regularly for serious physical ailments they rarely have, said Laurie Flynn, executive director of the TeenScreen National Center at Columbia University. They ought to be checked for mental illness, because "they're at a very, very vulnerable period" for those disorders.

She called for free, five-minute screenings of children at schools and pediatric clinics as a way to diagnosis mental illness early, while it's more readily treatable.

Diagnosing mental illness before it comes into full bloom might even force experts to re-define the illnesses themselves, Insel said. If caught early, schizophrenia, for example, might no longer be defined by the typical mental breaks from reality that its sufferers experience.

Reaching that point, Insel said, requires hard research "and a collective conversation that's very thoughtful."

"Denial will never reduce stigma. What we need is to understand all of the facts."

Dr. Thomas Insel,

director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland

Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or