Below are our posts discussing the mental health implications of the Newtown school shooting.
“I Love My Son. But He Terrifies Me.”
Liza Long shares her experience raising a violent, mentally ill child:
A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me. That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. …
In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.
Sy Mukherjee examines mental health services in Connecticut:
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that Connecticut’s public mental health system currently provides coverage for less than one in five Connecticut residents with a serious mental health problem. The other four may not be able to afford to pay for those services on their own, particularly since mental health issues tend to disproportionately affect poor people. Many states do require mental health evaluations and background checks before allowing their residents to purchase a gun. But doing an evaluation isn’t the same thing as actually treating people with ongoing mental health conditions.
We do not fully know what the killer’s psychological profile actually was yet. Perhaps we never will. There are some hints and guesses here. But that we need a broader and deeper discussion of mental illness in American society seems undeniable to me, along with a much more aggressive attempt to treat those many people hovering at the edge of compulsion and violence. The salient debate only begins, it seems to me, after we have rejected the easy extremes – that such a person is inherently evil or somehow blameless. And every case will be different, because every human life is different. To infer anything general about an individual case like this – especially the hideous, reckless and grotesquely unfair generalizations that have been made about people dealing with autism or Asperger’s – would be deeply wrong.
But at what point does mental illness require action? I saw my own mother taken away from me and sent to a mental hospital when I was four. She was admitted several times again as I grew up – and since. She was put through electric convulsive treatments several times – a fact my young mind simply could not fully handle. They’re electrocuting my mummy’s head? And then she was there again – my beloved mother, the same but fragile, living her life for many years as if she were crawling naked on broken glass in the dark.
Was her disease intensified by her own personal history and situation? Sure. The first breakdown came during post-partum depression with my younger brother. Was it also something beyond her control? Absolutely as well. Did its ripple effects come to overwhelm all of us in different ways? I’d say – after a lot of therapy – that I was obviously traumatized at an early age by this kind of experience. It defined my emotional development. It wiped out my sister’s retention of an entire year at elementary school. Mental illness does not usually massacre children, as just happened. But it wounds and hurts countless others because treatment is not there, and stigma still endures.
My mother, to put it baldly, never harmed a soul. Her illness was the greatest threat to herself. But it changed the lives of all those around her – and the families with people with mental illness have issues to deal with as well. And by chance, this weekend, I saw Silver Linings Playbook, which for the first two-thirds of the movie, really does courageously explore the edge between disease and wellness, sanity and madness, truth and social expectations that dealing with such illness exposes. For that alone, it’s a movie whose humanity and depth surpasses the morally neutered Zero Dark Thirty.
It also establishes, it seems to me, a clear and defensible line: the illness that can lead to spasms of violence is the one we need to control and treat first. This is an incredibly hard call for a family with a mentally unwell human being in its midst to arrive at, as the story above shows, and as my own memories echo. But it is important. In a less grave instance, I realize now that the mother I was sobbing for at four years’ old (and multiple times thereafter) was not a mother who could adequately take care of me until she got care herself. She needed help. And so did those around her.
We need to take that truth more seriously than we now do. Not just because we can help prevent mass death. But because we can also prevent lives that are living deaths of the spirit, and because we can now appease and effectively treat many of the torments whose turmoil spreads ever outwards. I hope Sandy Hook takes us further in that direction of policy adjustment. The issue of mental illness seems to me as equally relevant here as gun control. And we seem sadly often incapable of having a mature, and, above all, humane conversation about it.
(Photo: Teddy bears, flowers and candles in memory of those killed, are left at a memorial down the street from the Sandy Hook School December 16, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. By Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Don’t Blame Asperger’s
Ron Fournier talks to his 15-year-old Aspie son about the possibility that Adam Lanza may have had the syndrome:
“If you meet somebody with Asperger’s,” he said, “you’ve only met one person with Asperger’s.” Tyler’s point is worth us all noting: Don’t overgeneralize. Don’t stigmatize in a rush to explain inexplicable evil. Autism didn’t cause this tragedy: Asperger’s is a blip on the far-reaching autism spectrum and no two cases are the same. Just as no “typical” person deserves to be tar-brushed with the evil acts of another, Aspies don’t deserve the bad press they’re getting.
Tyler’s form of autism makes it difficult for him to relate to people – to read social cues and easily express empathy. He is not prone to violence nor is he “missing something in the brain,” as so-called autism experts are claiming in the wake of the Connecticut tragedy. He is a gentle, loving 15-year-old who, like millions of others on the spectrum, is destined for a happy, successful life: college, marriage, a career and kids – whatever he wants.
Adam Martin adds:
“There really is no clear association between Asperger’s and violent behavior,” psychologist Elizabeth Laugeson, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Associated Press. Another psychologist, Eric Butter of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, explained that aggressive behavior such as pushing, shoving, or shouting occurs with higher frequency among people with autism. “But we are not talking about the kind of planned and intentional type of violence we have seen at Newtown.”
Emily Willingham, also a parent of an Aspie, points out that missing social cues is nowhere near the same thing as being a sociopath, and that “autistic people are far more likely to have violence done against them than to do violence to others.”
(Photo: Will Gilbertsen, 11 years old, has Asperger Syndrome. His mother Kathleen Atmore is a neuropsychiatrist who specializes in therapy for autistic youth. She recently pulled him out of public school when he was being teased and said he wanted to die. He will start private school for children with Asperger Syndrome, which includes deficiency in emotional and social skills. By Carol Guzy/The Washington Post/Getty Images.)
“I Love My Son. But He Terrifies Me” Ctd
A reader writes:
Your story resonates with me because my mother suffered from post-partum depression after my birth (I am the fourth of seven children), which eventually plunged her into depression – and ultimately she suffered from bi-polar disorder. She was “treated” with electro-shock therapy and was hospitalized several times. My father was mostly able to shield us from her illness, but her nervous breakdown in our kitchen on a Sunday morning when I was about 15 years old is seared into my memory.
And then three years ago, my 21-year-old son died by suicide. Since then, my wife and I have started a non-profit organization to help parents deal with their children who struggle with mental illness. So many of the issues now being discussed have been tossed around in my household for several months.
I largely agree with your assessment on how the issue of mental illness should be addressed within our society. Our attention should not focus on preventing massacres or suicides, because the incidence of these events is relatively rare. Rather, our focus should be saving people from the hell of mental illness. If we can achieve some success in that regard, then the numbers of tragedies will decrease as a by-product, and we’ll realize the additional benefit of a portion of our society becoming more productive. How much is the right amount to invest in mental health? That question should be answered by a serious public discussion that should be led by the President and by Congress.
I worked as a teacher for the past three years at a charter school that attracted a disproportionate number of antisocial children, so we spent a fair amount of time researching what we could do as a school to help these kids. We determined from the research that the most effective programs screen kindergarten or first grade children for antisocial behavior using objective tools designed for this purpose. These screening tools not only identify children who act out, but also those who are withdrawn and tend to be overlooked. Just as we know that early intervention is necessary for academic concerns, it is also necessary for behavioral and emotional problems.
So, did we actually implement this program? No. Some members of the school board were concerned that children of color would be disproportionately identified by the screening tools. Mind you, there was no proof that the tools were biased and we had not even determined which screening tool we would use. I think they were really uncomfortable about identifying Kindergarteners as “antisocial,” although any Kindergarten teacher will tell you that some of their students are- they’ll just use nicer words. The research says that we tend to minimize social problems in small children, so kids don’t get help until they are older and the patterns are ingrained, if they get helped at all.
I was a legal clerk in 2011, representing the county in mental health probate court in informal hearings to adjudicate citizens with mental illness. The county always won the case. Always. The judges are afraid of not committing a person for fear that they might harm someone. Sounds great right? A mentally ill person is given the treatment they need and they are no longer a risk to the community or to themselves.
This is where the deficiencies of the system were glaring. The order to commit a person is usually good for 30 to 90 days (typically 30 days). During those 30 days, the institution would medicate and work with this person and try to improve their mental state to a point that they are no longer a threat to themselves and others. Then? They are released. If the person is lucky, they would have someone to be released to. Usually, they are just unleashed on the public.
The public wants an easy fix. There is no easy fix. Just like every other societal issue, the public looks to the government to solve this problem but doesn’t want to pony up the money it takes to fix this problem. There is no way to sugar coat this, it is a big problem.
I tried an elderly woman who believed she was pregnant with President Obama’s child after she ran away from her nursing home and was almost struck by a car on a main road at 3 a.m. I tried a middle-aged man who exposed his genitals to children at a park because he believed he needed their attention to keep his bones from melting. One of the people I tried was a 24-year-old pharmacy school student who had no mental health problems until a sudden onset of schizophrenia caused him to shoot the local NBC affiliate because the voices in his head told him he had to get on TV to save young people from gun violence.
These folks are black, white and Latino. They are mothers, fathers and sons. They really are a risk to themselves and others. I thank God that only one of them had access to a gun; and that he only managed to shoot a glass door.
“They Hate Reality”
A reader writes:
There are many ways to suffer a mental illness. I have spent half my years mentally ill; the other half getting well.
It requires a stretch of empathy to detect the sense in the senseless rampage; after the Virginia Tech killings my first inkling was that this is a human being who hates reality. Not just life, not just people, but reality. Part of this hate is from the paranoia, but part is from the sinking feeling of the abyss.
Because my father was wealthy, well connected, wise and willing to help, I had the best care available; and still it was, and is, a struggle. But I see those who got left behind, and I see what havoc they wreak. There was something within me; maybe the inability to execute a plan, maybe this (perhaps Jewish) revulsion to violence that kept me from the outbursts we see too much of these days.
But not everybody has the care, requiring human and financial resources, that I had.
Thank you for giving me a part in your conversation.
“I Love My Son. But He Terrifies Me.” Ctd
We have of course gotten used to mommy bloggers embarrassing their children, saying which child they like best or how much they drink while stuck at home doing art projects. Louis C.K. regularly embarrasses his kids and surely one day they will get their revenge. These are humiliations that might require a kid to get therapy later, but they are not on the same order as what Long did. They are unlikely, for example, to prevent the kids from getting a job. So far the children’s rights movement has focused on protecting children from neglect and abuse, but maybe it’s time to add a subcategory protecting them from libel, by their own parents.
One of Hanna’s commenters objects:
There should be absolutely no reason why we can’t discuss mental illness like we discuss any medical disease or disorder. Most people readily discuss their aches and pains with no shame. Why should mental illness be any different? As long as we keep mental illness a taboo subject we sentence people, suffering from mental illness, in the closet. It is really hard to get good help in a closet.
Rebecca Schoenkopf shares the story of her late brother, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. She also defends Long:
Maybe Liza Long, who wrote about her violent son, is a lying monster who only cares about pageviews. Or maybe she is at the end of her rope, and her “media tour” I’m seeing ripped apart online springs from actually trying to get help for families like hers.
Don’t Blame Asperger’s, Ctd
A reader writes:
My son who went to elementary school in Newtown many years ago has Aspergers. He was horrified by what happened on Friday. He was afraid to go to school yesterday because he thinks people will assume that because he has Aspergers he is a potential mass murderer.
Parents of children with Aspergers have mercifully risen to the occasion. Another writes:
My 12-year-old son was diagnosed with Asperger’s when he was seven. After the shootings at Sandy Hook, I found myself reading obsessively online to find out how journalists were accounting for the horror. Once I read that Adam Lanza had been considered a socially awkward loner, I feared he would be identified as having Asperger’s. (I recalled that after the Jeffrey Dahmer killings, an African-American friend told me that she was so glad he was not black.) I have talked to my son about how he may be perceived differently in the wake of Sandy Hook. I have told him he should never participate in the violent joking rhetoric so popular among 12-year-old boys because it could be misconstrued.
I am a child and adolescent in-home therapist who works with children with severe emotional and behavioral problems. As one of the only male, community-based mental health therapists in my county, I have a caseload mostly made up of very “aggressive” males (often also shy, awkward, insecure, creative, funny once you get to know them, deeply wounded and at their core – human). For them to be eligible to see me, they typically have been hospitalized for serious threats to other people, which are often times family members.
Needless to say, much of what we know about Adam Lanza’s story resonates with me on a profoundly personal level. Ditto for the mother who penned the beautiful and heart-breaking essay “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”. These are my kids. I spend my days at their kitchen tables, on their porches and at their schools. Working with them and their families to understand and try to manage unspeakable feelings and impulses.
In most them, Asperger’s has either been suspected or diagnosed. We need to be extremely cautious in how we view causality in this case, but one of the possible theories out there is that part of Asperger’s involves an impairment in “mirror neurons”, which some suspect are the neurological basis for empathy. Exploratory research has established that children with conduct disorder, often a childhood precursor for people diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder, may also suffer the same impairment.
Perhaps this is a way for grieving families and a broken system to rationalize the cold and calculating way in which they can sometimes navigate the world. Maybe. But just as we know of people with anti-social personality disorder, most of them are not violent, or at least learn ways in which to control their impulses. They may be CEOs, politicians, lawyers, artists, or janitors. Same can be said for individuals with Asperger’s. However, when you have an individual who has difficulty reading social cues, relating to others, empathizing AND combine it with violent impulses, among other important risk factors such as traumatic history, early attachment issues, limit resources and social support, it can really become a horrific situation for that individual and those who love them.
We all want to make sense when tragedies happen, and have an almost existential need for a “primary cause”. Asperger’s or any other mental health issue is not going to be it in this case. We don’t even know if it was ever diagnosed yet. But as is the case with the dialogue about gun control, we need to honestly examine all of the underlying causes with grace and sincerity. Only then can we begin to understand and hopefully prevent these future horrors from happening.
“I Love My Son. But He Terrifies Me” Ctd
A reader writes:
First, a note of thanks. As a mother of two boys on the autism spectrum I really appreciated your “Don’t Blame Asperger’s” discussion. The irony though is that it came on the heels of “I love my son but he terrifies me” post. I’m not going to critique Liza Long’s story; there’s lots of other places that have done that. What breaks my heart is the near constant refrain I am hearing – that what happened in Connecticut is evidence that we have to do something about mental healthcare.
We DO have to do something about mental healthcare but this correlation between mass murder and the mentally ill is hurting the very people you’re trying to advocate for, people like your mother. We need a “Don’t Blame Mental Illness” post telling people to stop making dangerous assumptions.
(1) We don’t yet know whether Adam Lanza was mentally ill and this speculation is unhelpful and potentially damaging. (2) Mentally ill people are no more likely to commit violent acts than the mentally healthy, unless substance abuse is involved. Even then the greatest risk is self-directed violence (suicide). (3) Mentally ill people don’t (and often aren’t capable) of planning and executing mass murders. (4) Mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.
Here is a blog post that has some data substantiating what I’m saying. Please, if you won’t speak out against this harmful and erroneous correlation, can you at least stop perpetuating it?
In reading your emails I am struck with the same sinking feeling I have dealt with for the last 15 years. These people we love who are suffering from mental illness never really get better. I love my wife, but I am not sure that I can continue to be married to her.
We have two daughters, and as they get older and approach more independence it seems to be pushing my wife further down the rabbit hole. We have gone through a great deal of therapy, but she is medicated but not attending counseling right now. She swings between tolerating me and loathing me, and while I have my faults I am certainly not a terrible person. I have remained faithful through all of the paranoia, hallucinations, and chaos.
I am sadly reaching an end of my patience, but the sadder fact is that there is no cure for mental illness. It is like living with a constant storm with a few breaks here and there. I am worried as my daughters become teens that they will become increasingly aware of their mothers illness. I am also worried about the impact of getting divorced, and the fear that I might not win full custody. I can’t afford to pay for two residence as we are a single-income family. In a way I am trapped because there is nobody else to care for her, and I can’t afford to leave.
Mental illness is like a cancer that spreads across our society, and the fact that we still don’t treat it as a threat is appalling. I will suggest a wonderful organization called The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). They had support groups for people directly and indirectly suffering from mental illness. In addition to my wife, my brother also suffers from mental illness. It is a major problem throughout the world, and it destroys lives.
Another zooms out a little, in response to Rosin’s reaction to Liza Long:
Oh, please, enough with the self-righteous writers who are condemning those who blog or talk about the difficulty of raising kids, especially those with mental illness. This culture has for too long skewed too far the other way; we have romanticized child-rearing for the past 20 years.
I am 27, my wife 25. Both of us have had to endure friends, relatives, the media give us the idealized view of having kids for so long. In our media every kid is an honors student, a star athlete, popular, and adorable. The only thing a parent is required to do is to stand aside and beam at their perfect little kids. I teach high school, and too many girls have no idea that their future kid could possibly force them to sacrifice their social lives, let alone have autism or another disorder. Louis CK is funny and illuminating about the difficulty, boredom, and fatigue of having kids. And his daughters, as far as I know, are without any serious mental problems. It’s not exploitation to talk about them. It’s an honest and necessary pushback against the “fun” aspects of having children. It’s a serious decision, and serious decisions sometime require unpleasant facts.