Mental Health a Bigger Issue than Gun Control Laws

Violence in America takes on many forms, and there are some conversations we aren't having surrounding the issue — but should be.

The following article was written by Liza Long, republished from The Blue Review

"Friday’s horrific national tragedy — the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut — has ignited a new discussion on violence in America. In kitchens and coffee shops across the country, we tearfully debate the many faces of violence in America: gun culture, media violence, lack of mental health services, overt and covert wars abroad, religion, politics and the way we raise our children. Liza Long, a writer based in Boise, says it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness. While every family's story of mental illness is different, and we may never know the whole of the Lanza's story, tales like this one need to be heard — and families who live them deserve our help.

"Three days before 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year-old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants. 'I can wear these pants,' he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises. 'They are navy blue,' I told him. 'Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.'

"'They told me I could wear these,' he insisted. 'You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!'

"'You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,' I said, my tone affable, reasonable. 'And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.'

"I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me. 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.

"The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist. We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.

"At the start of seventh grade, Michael was accepted to an accelerated program for highly gifted math and science students. His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.

"Several weeks into his new junior high school, Michael began exhibiting increasingly odd and threatening behaviors at school. We decided to transfer him to the district’s most restrictive behavioral program, a contained school environment where children who can’t function in normal classrooms can access their right to free public babysitting from 7:30-1:50 Monday through Friday until they turn 18. The morning of the pants incident, Michael continued to argue with me on the drive. He would occasionally apologize and seem remorseful. Right before we turned into his school parking lot, he said, 'Look, Mom, I’m really sorry. Can I have video games back today?' 'No way,' I told him. 'You cannot act the way you acted this morning and think you can get your electronic privileges back that quickly.'

"His face turned cold, and his eyes were full of calculated rage. 'Then I’m going to kill myself,' he said. 'I’m going to jump out of this car right now and kill myself.' That was it. After the knife incident, I told him that if he ever said those words again, I would take him straight to the mental hospital, no ifs, ands, or buts. I did not respond, except to pull the car into the opposite lane, turning left instead of right.

"'Where are you taking me?' he said, suddenly worried. 'Where are we going?' 'You know where we are going,' I replied. 'No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!'

"I pulled up in front of the hospital, frantically waiving for one of the clinicians who happened to be standing outside. 'Call the police,' I said. 'Hurry.'

"Michael was in a full-blown fit by then, screaming and hitting. I hugged him close so he couldn’t escape from the car. He bit me several times and repeatedly jabbed his elbows into my rib cage. I’m still stronger than he is, but I won’t be for much longer.

"The police came quickly and carried my son screaming and kicking into the bowels of the hospital. I started to shake, and tears filled my eyes as I filled out the paperwork — 'Were there any difficulties with… at what age did your child… were there any problems with.. has your child ever experienced.. does your child have…' At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You’ll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing. For days, my son insisted that I was lying — that I made the whole thing up so that I could get rid of him. The first day, when I called to check up on him, he said, 'I hate you. And I’m going to get my revenge as soon as I get out of here.' By day three, he was my calm, sweet boy again, all apologies and promises to get better. I’ve heard those promises for years. I don’t believe them anymore. On the intake form, under the question, 'What are your expectations for treatment?' I wrote, “I need help.'

"And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense. I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

"According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do. When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. 'If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,' he said. 'That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.'

"I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise — in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population. With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill -- Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011. No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, 'Something must be done.'

"I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal. God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.

(Originally published at The Anarchist Soccer Mom, and republished on The Huffington Post). 

This article really speaks to me. I, too have a son with problems. He has been in and out of the justice system for years.  But this woman was told the same thing I was when my son first started exhibiting problems.

I had to get  his behavior documented and get him arrested the first time at the age of 14.  

He does not admit to having problems, and therefore will not seek treatment. Instead, he self medicated with drugs, and got in trouble over and over again.  Fortunately my child has never been violent, and not hurt anyone but himself ... but trying to get someone to help you help your child is almost impossible, then after they are 18 it is even worse!

I know it is not parenting, as I have 2 other children whom all turned out well with the same parenting. So, it is time to start looking at ways for a parent to get help with a child or young adult who is having "problems" without locking them up in jail.

It should be easier for a parent to get professional help for children that they know are having problems with mental illness. As it stands now, unless you can prove in a court of law that your child is a danger to himself or others, you can not get any help. Then if the child is over 18, you are cut off from having any say in their treatment. You, who knows what is normal for that child better than anyone! You can keep a child on your insurance now until the age of 26, but you have no say if they are mentaly ill on how their treatment should go. If someone in the system disagrees with you, then your child is let go, on the streets, with no help, and they call that humane ... We need to address mental heath issues in this country, not guns.

And let's stop blaming the parents. 

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Randy1949 December 18, 2012 at 04:49 PM
I read that blog too, and I am curious about the son's diagnosis. We need to understand that mental illness has as many different conditions as physical illness, and we have no idea if Adam Lanza' condition was in any way similar to the son's in this blog. Adam Lanza is said to have had Asperger's, but how that manifested is not known. People with Asperger's can have other mental conditions as well, including bi-polar and schizophrenia.
Rik Kluessendorf December 18, 2012 at 04:50 PM
Mental health is a huge problem to be addressed. But it is one that is also extremely dangerous to address. If you are going to successfully treat and control someone with mental health issues, you are first going to have to overcome their own perception that they have no mental health issues. Human nature says that we all see ourselves as a little more capable than we really are (for proof, stop by any karaoke night anywhere). Unless someone is ready to admit that they are incapable of handling themselves, you have to fight against that person to remove his ability to make his own decisions. Now let's talk about what removing those decisions means. No firearms, by federal law (that's the easy one). But usually it means no ability to own property, no ability to participate in elections, serve on a jury, no ability to choose your own doctors, no ability to choose where you want to live, no ability to really make any of your own major decisions. That's a pretty serious thing to put someone through. You're effectively turning someone into a perpetual child - at least legally - who will never get the rights that all of us enjoy as part of our free society. We generally are afraid to do that. Now let's also talk about mental illnesses and how they work. People don't walk around with a sign on their head that says "incompetent." There is a whole lot of grey. Most people have some mild form of something anyway - be it depression, anxiety, or anything else.
Rik Kluessendorf December 18, 2012 at 04:53 PM
Now try to imagine the diagnostic tools necessary to figure out who sits with the ticking time bomb. Is the depressive person going to attempt suicide or mass murder-suicide? How depressed is threateningly depressed? How depressed is enough to take your adult rights to decision-making away? What about anxiety? Where does anxiety cross from being normal to being something that becomes out-of-the ordinary? What about those illnesses we still don't clearly understand? Autism, PTSD, head trauma, dementia. All of these can be things that we would have to focus on before taking away a whole lot of rights. I'm not saying we shouldn't examine this, but I am saying this is a huge thing to examine. And I think it has been left unaddressed because, frankly, no one knows where to begin. This is a real problem and going to continue as a problem.
Randy1949 December 18, 2012 at 04:55 PM
@Bob McBride -- You are correct that some troubled individuals are best not exposed to things that most of us would be able to handle. That would include the glorification of violence in video games (and movies and literature) and the sort of paranoia that some gun owners manifest. It's one thing to enjoy target shooting or to have a gun in the house for protection against an intruder. Adam Lanza's mother seems to have been preparing for the zombie apocalypse. That sort of thinking is not a good influence on someone with Asperrger's, if indeed that's all he had.
c December 18, 2012 at 05:07 PM
@Bren The US military is not a militia. Get your facts straight.
c December 18, 2012 at 05:09 PM
Young C, calm the heck down dude. Nobody said "lock em up"! I'm a libertarian but I do agree that if someone is on major psycho-altering drugs, maybe they shouldn't have a gun.
Randy1949 December 18, 2012 at 05:10 PM
Plenty of people with 'mental illnesses' are not incompetent. Mental illness ranges from mildly depressed to full-blown psychotic, and that's sidestepping the issue of personality disorders. Of course, no one who is incompetent (or approaching that stage) thinks they are incompetent. But we can't be taking rights away from people who are mildly depressed and dealing with it. People with bi-polar disorder rarely reach the stage where they require a guardian.
c December 18, 2012 at 05:14 PM
@Brian C A liberal is typically a bitter jealous person, who hates anyone who makes more money, is more successful, or a more useful member of society, than they are. The world could easily survive without most liberals, as most are takers and not producers. Think of it this way - what percent of welfare recipients vote democrat/liberal, and what percent of welfare recipients vote conservative? 90-10 I am guessing? Look no further than ignorant inner city generational welfare, or even rural poor trash like Honey Boo Boo, too see this. Conversely, the world would not function without conservatives, who are more likely to be productive and useful in the real world. A starving artist is basically useless, but it seems it is the most noble venture of a liberal. So, liberals, in their self hate and shortcomings, vote every chance they get to bring down those better than them.
Rik Kluessendorf December 18, 2012 at 05:15 PM
Randy, that is precisely my point. This issue (mental health) is a lot more complex than black and white.
FreeThought Troy December 18, 2012 at 05:19 PM
So Filicidal murder is a better solution than mental health and gun control efforts? Am I missing something???
Randy1949 December 18, 2012 at 05:20 PM
@c -- Wow, what a blindingly ignorant load of stereotyping.
Randy1949 December 18, 2012 at 05:36 PM
@Rik Kluesendorf -- Thank you. It bothers me especially to see Adam Lanza reported as having Asperger's, as if that accounts for his violent behavior, and to see him equated to the son in the blog above. We simply do not know what his problems entailed and the rationale (in his mind) for the shootings.
Young Conservative December 18, 2012 at 05:46 PM
I am curious, did Pol Pot suffer from mental illness? How about Idi Amin Dada? Adolf Hitler? Josef Stalin? Here is a brief list of human beings killed at the hands of people like the above, was this the result of mental illness or evil? 61,911,000 Murdered: The Soviet Gulag State 35,236,000 Murdered: The Communist Chinese Ant Hill 20,946,000 Murdered: The Nazi Genocide State 10,214,000 Murdered: The Depraved Nationalist Regime 5,964,000 Murdered: Japan's Savage Military 2,035,000 Murdered: The Khmer Rouge Hell State 1,883,000 Murdered: Turkey's Genocidal Purges 1,670,000 Murdered: The Vietnamese War State 1,585,000 Murdered: Poland's Ethnic Cleansing again, I feel like I am speaking to 12 year olds, not supposed grown adults about good and evil, as they look and blame folks labeled mentally ill......
Randy1949 December 18, 2012 at 05:54 PM
The men you cite may well have been sociopaths (people who lack empathy among other traits) and that is a personality disorder that qualifies as mental illness. Don't you think the world would be a better place if we could figure out how not to create and nurture sociopaths? You may feel like you're talking to twelve-year-olds, but it's more like you're a pre-schooler trying to insist you know it all to a group of middle-schoolers who have come further along the road to emotional maturity than you have.
Rik Kluessendorf December 18, 2012 at 05:59 PM
YC - I think the answer to your question is yes. Those men did have a mental illness. But I also think that you have some merit to your point - that people, regardless of mental illness - should be accountable for their actions. The counter - that some people are so beyond reality as to escape accountability - is something that is long-recognized in our society (removing such would eliminate an NGI plea to criminal liability, where someone might be so mentally disturbed as to honestly have no clue either (a) what they are doing, (b) how to prevent it, or (c) whether their actions are right or wrong). The prevailing question, and one that jumps out to the front of this particular situation, is where we draw that line. Where do we look at someone and say that he had no control over his own actions (thereby placing responsibility on those charged with his care), as opposed to someone who had mental illness, but should still be held accountable for his choices. The honest answer is we have no clue until after something happens because we just don't understand the issue.
Randy1949 December 18, 2012 at 06:17 PM
Except for those individuals who are so detached from reality that they really don't know what they're doing is wrong, mentally ill people who commit crimes are indeed responsible for their actions. Any mentally ill person who commits a crime pays for it by being locked up, if they don' t kill themselves first.
Steve ® December 18, 2012 at 06:57 PM
More government is not the solution. Those with mental health issues have rights, the ACLU made sure of this years ago. Someday we just need to admit bad things will happen on rare occasions. How you prepare yourself is up to you. You are looking for something larger to blame. The mother could have prevented this long ago, now she and a lot others are dead. Including her son, anyway. We have gun control, lots of it. All you do is punish the normal citizens with more government costly programs, and take away freedoms.
FreeThought Troy December 18, 2012 at 07:03 PM
Steve: I am going to need you to look into the eyes of the parents to those 20 murdered kids and explain to them "sometimes bad things happen - we can't do anything because of the ACLU..." There is plenty we can do. The first thing is to grow a spine and seriously question/re evaluate our views on quite a lot of issues.
Steve ® December 18, 2012 at 07:19 PM
Allowing your emotion to take over again I see. Luckily the constitution is in my personal favor here. Wait, I got it!!!! We need to make murder illegal /problem
FreeThought Troy December 18, 2012 at 07:43 PM
Conservatives are typcially pompous know-it-alls that stick to their phylosophies mindlessly even in the face of undenyable facts to the contrary. This statement above is so incredibly un-fair. It does describe some Conservatives. It also describes some Liberals. It does not describe all of anyone in a typical sence or not. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/liberalism There. There is a definition.
FreeThought Troy December 18, 2012 at 07:44 PM
And no... aparantly I can't spell: Philosophies Sorry.
Rik Kluessendorf December 18, 2012 at 07:58 PM
Randy, if that's the case, then the CT situation is entirely on the killer. Somehow, there's more to this, though. There is this grey area we just can't get our fingers on because we don't understand it. This killer was dangerous - proven by his actions in hindsight. So, we want to draw a line that includes him in the group that should be limited in his rights. But drawing that line - at least as we now know how to do it - cuts out hundreds of thousands of people who are likely not dangerous, just to include ten that are. That is where this gets far more complicated than anyone has been capable of addressing.
Randy1949 December 18, 2012 at 08:08 PM
I guess my focus is on seeing to it that we keep vulnerable individuals from turning violent in the first place. And I know this is easier said than done. In hindsight, Adam Lanza should not have had access to guns. His mother should have known this but did not. We still don't have all the facts in this case.
c December 19, 2012 at 03:05 AM
@Randy What is a stereotype but a generalization that is usually based on fact? Sure I generalized but there is a lot of truth to what I said. Does it bother you that much? Are you one of these people who suck off the system and aren't part gears of the social machine that provide for everyone? Or are you one of the burn out 60's hippies whom suck at life so much that you'd rather turn the machine to rust, rather than apply yourself and be productive and responsible?
Randy1949 December 19, 2012 at 03:34 AM
If stereotypes are mostly based on facts, you wouldn't like the one about men who are obsessed with guns. If it comforts you to believe that 'liberals' are useless teat-suckers who never made a contribution to society, go right ahead. You couldn't be farther from the truth.
Kelly December 20, 2012 at 04:24 PM
Has anyone watched "Making a Killing" on youtube? Very thought provoking video on the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=UDlH9sV0lHU
Eric December 20, 2012 at 05:09 PM
Most of those Holocaust's were at the hands of Atheist regimes as well...coincidence I think not.
FreeThought Troy December 20, 2012 at 05:14 PM
Actually - Hitler consulted with the Catholic Church, which he based his policies concerning Jews, before the Holocaust. Thanks for shifting blame from another horror religion has wrought upon our world.
Brian Carlson December 20, 2012 at 05:48 PM
Eric, Hitler quoted Christ frequently in speeches. You are really off on this one. The Axis powers, Germany and Italy.... were Christian nations. The war between the US and Germany, Italy at least, was a war between so called Christian nations... The genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas was conducted by Christians for the most part. Your statement is more than myopic...
Cassie Burckhardt December 20, 2012 at 05:52 PM
Some people may have mental help problems, but the Sandy Brooke and Oregon Mall shootings, they knew what they were doing. When a black person kills people people act like he's a monster, but when a white person kills someone, its immediatley 'He has a mental illness'. One HAD a problem. The other didn't. Don't listen to what the media tells you, most of it is not true.


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