Mental Illness, A Conversation That Needs To Be Had

Just read this.

Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killedhis 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.

The poor woman who wrote this goes on to note the utter lack of meaningful health care provision for the mentally ill, or support for their carers, in the U.S. Especially if they lack health insurance. Her son’s social worker advised her to get him charged with a crime, because prison is the way the US now deals with mental illness and only the prison system is really set up to cope with severely mentally ill people of her child’s kind any more.

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.

Indeed. Let’s have that conversation alongside making it harder for people to get guns to kill people with. We’re going to need every possible route to a solution we can find.

Update: Sarah Kendzior suggests the person behind the post which sparked this may not be all she’s making herself out to be. (Via Raja)

Liza Long, the woman who wrote the viral post “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”, is being held up as a heroic woman warranting sympathy for bring the plight of her mentally ill son to the public.

Her blog tells a different story. Long has written a series of vindictive and cruel posts about her children in which she fantasizes about beating them, locking them up and giving them away. In most posts, her allegedly insane and violent son is portrayed as a normal boy who incites her wrath by being messy, buying too many Apple products and supporting Obama.

I feel uncomfortable speculating about someone’s private life based on a blog. But since these children are likely to be the object of enormous media attention, someone should be paying close attention to the words of their mother.

These children could be in real danger if her goal was to capitalize on the Newtown tragedy by creating a media campaign designed to give her sympathy. If I am wrong about this, I truly apologize. But there is a 13-year-old boy who has already had his reputation destroyed and who may be facing serious harm.

This “national conversation” on mental illness needs to include the mental illness of mothers and the online privacy of their children.

According to the blog, Liza Long is going through a bitter divorce and has violent and paranoid fantasies about her family. The father of the children is also portrayed as abusive.

Unfortunately, even if Long isn’t the real deal, there are more than a handful out there who are. See my first comment on the thread.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

17 CommentsLeave a comment

    • You have my sympathy, Steve, for the added stress you must be experiencing as a result of this tragic event.

      I sincerely hope that the issue of mental health in our society will receive the attention it needs and deserves.

      Examining the problems in this blog, as you and Kathy are doing, is a good way to start.

      I have a sister who committed suicide at age 23. I visited her in the hospital once where she lay on a bed in restraints, screaming. The image never leaves my mind. Neither do the minute remnants of the white matter of her brain and the orange scarf she was wearing, that I and a brother saw on the railway track at the spot where she took her life.

      It’s all the more painful since I truly believe her death could have been prevented if she had lived in a more stable and caring society. Some of us have greater strength in dealing with the multitude of injustices our culture throws at us. I fight so I can keep her spirit alive.

      • My God, the things people go through in their lives that no one ever knows about. You’d think it would make the world a *more* compassionate place.

        I am so sorry about your sister, Adrena. And you’re not alone. (I’m sure you know that, but somehow it helps to hear, at least it does me, because our isolation makes us feel so singled out for heartbreak sometimes.) My father suffered from depression much of his life, and it was never adequately treated. He killed himself, by swallowing an entire container of Valium, when I was 28. He had unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide a couple of years before that — the second attempt succeeded.

  • Thanks for the link, anecdotal though it was, the message needs to be widely understood, we do not know much about our very minds, what makes them work, what makes then ill, what makes them well or even what makes them excel.

    Personally a difficult year, lost a sister to schizophrenia, her medication over the course of the illness killing her kidneys. Her decision not to endure dialysis and twenty years were taken from her normal life expectancy. She is nevertheless sorely missed; a gaping hole in the warp and weft of one’s life now is.

    In the linked story, something said stuck out, that autism developed into violence as if they were one and the same. What if autism incapacitated the ability to control the emotions of anger, fear or rage; that there were several distinct events happening, that those experiencing the condition are as much victims as those they inflict themselves upon. I find it offensively ignorant the public perception that mental illness is equated with violence. Violence grows in a different garden of the mind, that place where anger, fear or rage take root and flower.

    After loosing the sister, in the course of reading (and memory of past reading) an association happened. Some studies indicate schizophrenia has a high incidence in children of mothers suffering viral infections (IIRC flu) in their pregnancies. Another study indicates schizophrenia presents during or after some viral episode in the child. Still another study suggests the damage to the brains of schizophrenia sufferers appears like the result of chronic autoimmune reaction. What lifetimes could be saved if flu could be treated with an antiviral prescription.

    • What if autism incapacitated the ability to control the emotions of anger, fear or rage; that there were several distinct events happening, that those experiencing the condition are as much victims as those they inflict themselves upon.

      This is exactly how it is. My son, for example, knows that he has episodes over which he has no control. The way he describes them is of someone who is in a real sense a bystander to the tantrum, horrified by it but unable to stop. He refers to his autistic tantrums as “having a Stitch Glitch.” If you’ve seen Lilo and Stitch 2 you’ll get the reference and th concept immediately.

  • My sympathy, firstly, to you Arnie. Thanks for sharing. It is not good to read of others suffering and loss, but it helps us realise that we all experience it.

    Secondly, I would like to tease out the incapacitation of autism a bit further. So many autistic children love their routine, and when that routine is altered, or stopped, they cannot cope. Frustration that their routine has been interfered with is their biggest problem. And that frustration then leads to a meltdown where anger, fear and rage are made manifest in ‘difficult behaviours’ – biting, hair pulling, head banging et al.

    Learning how to guide an autistic child to transition from one activity to another, from one room to another, let alone from home to school is difficult. When an autistic child has high functioning intellect and language skills it is a little easier, but still can be difficult.

    Violence in autistic children can be totally innocent but very upsetting for parents and carers. I have worked with a 40 year old adult the past three years. When I first started, I would often be greeted with the person holding knives in their hands and threatening all sort of mayhem.

    I learnt to listen to the client, and spend time getting to know about their life. That person now considers me their best friend of the multitude of carers that come through the front door to attend to personal care, cleaning, cooking, shopping etc. And over the past 2 years no knives have been used in a violent way. The client can now verbalise frustration and is aware that their previous behaviour was not good. Yet still carers come into the house, and don’t listen and rush the client through whatever service is being attended to. And then wonder why the client has a verbal outburst at them. So patience is an important part of preventing outburst of aggression and violence.

    We live in a busy world, yet for those of us who deal with autistic people, we need to get in sync with their time experience, and live with them in that time frame, so that they feel safe and not frustrated.

  • More about autism, empathy, and violence.

    I don’t have the experience that Arnie and Graham have, but what Graham says, and what this article says, ring true from what contacts I have had with autistic people. And Aspies, of whom there are quite a few where I’ve worked.

    Of course we need better care for mental problems. But most of the people saying this now are simply trying to deflect the conversation from gun control. When funding for dealing with mental illness (or any health funding) comes up, they will be against it.

    And, btw, that Morgan Freeman thing making the rounds of social media and arguing for donating to mental health research instead of gun control apparently is a fake.

  • Autism Self-Advocacy Network statement, via Cheryl’s link:

    “Our hearts go out to the victims of today’s shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and their families. Recent media reports have suggested that the perpetrator of this violence, Adam Lanza, may have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, or with another psychiatric disability. In either event, it is imperative that as we mourn the victims of this horrific tragedy that commentators and the media avoid drawing inappropriate and unfounded links between autism or other disabilities and violence. Autistic Americans and individuals with other disabilities are no more likely to commit violent crime than non-disabled people. In fact, people with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. Should the shooter in today’s shooting prove to in fact be diagnosed on the autism spectrum or with another disability, the millions of Americans with disabilities should be no more implicated in his actions than the non-disabled population is responsible for those of non-disabled shooters.

    Today’s violence was the act of an individual. We urge media, government and community leaders to speak out against any effort to spuriously link the Autistic or broader disability community with violent crime. Autistic Americans and other groups of people with disabilities persist in facing discrimination and segregation in school, the workplace and the general community. In this terrible time, our society should not further stigmatize our community. As our great nation has so many times in the past, let us come together to both mourn those killed by acts of heinous murder and defend all parts of our country from the scourge of stigma and prejudice.”

  • The implicit framing here is that the necessary measures are increased availability of care and much more difficult access to firearms. Speaking from a Canadian perspective (where we have much more of both of these), I’d have to say beware of treating these like magic bullets. (Don’t get me wrong, they’re potent – they’re just not “magic”.) The other piece of the puzzle based on what I’ve seen – and the one that we struggle with on an ongoing basis – is what types of mental illnesses, and at what thresholds of risk, should be treated on a mandatory basis (i.e., remitting someone for care against their will). This is tough for a whole range of reasons, not least because society is broadly cognizant that previous practice was far too coercive.

    • Of course not. We have to be looking for mitigators here, not magic cures – and some may have to be phased in over time as previous steps become the commonplace background.

      Re “mandatory basis”, it occurs that the same folk who make noise about no gun controls at all are going to be very upset with the notion of any kind of federally mandated program for accessable and cheap mental illness monitoring and healthcare.

    • This is tough for a whole range of reasons, not least because society is broadly cognizant that previous practice was far too coercive.

      Absolutely! Who gets to decide what is a mental disorder? I imagine if the Teaparty ever gained power that homosexuality would be declared a mental disorder.

      In fact, from 1974-1987, the DSM recognised ‘ego-dystonic homosexuality’ as a disorder, defined as having sexual interest in the same sex and it causing distress. Never mind that the stress was caused by a homophobic society. It was removed as a disorder in 1987.

      Likewise, the Victorian era which wasn’t that long ago (1837-1901), designated heightened (normal) female sexual desire as a disorder.

      Many Victorian era mental institutions treated nymphomania as an exclusively female mental illness. Women were classified as mentally ill for nymphomania if they were a victim of sexual assault, bore illegitimate children, “abused themselves” (i.e. masturbated), or were deemed promiscuous.

      The extreme positions on women’s issues of some Republicans during the last election behooves us the proceed with caution on matters related to mental disorders.

  • Just turned my computer on, and Lisa’s article is the front page news item on Bing. So good to see that.

    @ Cheryl, thanks for that link. I can totally identify with what Emily has written.

    @ JPD and Adrena, yes, how do we allow humans to live freely in their ‘normality,’ when there is no such thing as normal.

  • A basic problem may just be arriving at a definition of normalcy which is both broadly acceptable by society and workable enough so that effective remedies can be implemented in those cases outside ‘normal’. The difficulty is that aside from recognizing extreme and obvious danger to others, there’s so much variety among people, it’s hard to establish an envelope of behavior which can be designated normal. Mental health treatment is complicated by the fact that many ‘socially-dystonic’ behaviors can arise from genetics, disease, bad parenting or simple chance – or any combination thereof.

    The man-in-the-street wants a black-and-white definition of mental health simply because he usually has neither the expertise nor inclination to look more deeply. Those impacted on a personal level understand that it’s a grey world. While we would hope that professionals would be a bit more perceptive, even they are not immune to the zeitgeist. Of course, it doesn’t help that Big Pharma doesn’t really give a rat’s ass about people, just profits.

    I can recall many instances of people ‘going postal’, but it seems to me there are many more such events today than there were 60 years ago and most of those those long-ago events involved veterans suffering from PTDS (I grew up during WWII. Although the term had not been invented yet, the condition was recognized). I also recall a couple of people I grew up with who were not to be trusted with guns, knives, etc. – it was understood by all. They were not ostracized, drugged or institutionalized, but the families and friends just made sure ‘Old Weird Joe’ somehow never got to go hunting or carry the usual pocketknife. That kind of community-wide understanding and protective reaction just doesn’t exist much anymore, certainly not in the suburbs. Now it’s either give them a pill, lock them up or pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

    • Anecdote: During the summer, many of us kids camped out every night away from parental supervision. Being kids, we sometimes raised hell so the local cops could justify their salaries – nothing terribly evil: just tipping over the occasional outhouse or moving it to the middle of the main crossroad; freaking out an officer by putting a condom over his tailpipe and enjoying the resulting blast, etc.

      We would sometimes raid the neighbors’ gardens for a potato roast. We once we decided to roast some corn. There was only one person growing corn and it only got about 4 feet tall (short season at 7700 feet ASL). The ears were only about 4 inches long, but the owner was very proud of them – and very protective. We got away with it once, but the second time he cut loose with a shotgun. Didn’t do any serious damage but it did scare the hell out of us. If he’d used a deer rifle, things might have gotten deadly.

      When the cops investigated the gunfire, he was arrested and held for a psychiatric exam. In the end, they took away his shotgun and told the kids to stay the hell away from his garden.

      The understanding of us kids, the cops, the psychiatrists and the entire community was that while we were wrong to filch his corn, ‘kids will be kids’ and using a shotgun was over-reaction and unjustified by the relatively trivial nature of our crime.

      Strangely enough, none of us kids went on to a life of crime. He did, however, end up in a mental hospital some years later for other reasons.

  • WHOA Steve, very disappointed to see you updating the initial post with Sarah Kendziors’ rabid words.

    Her fame on the internet as a shit-stirrer is long over. And now, when she has been attacked ” she claims she does not want to be part of a mommy war.”

    And she issues a joint statement with Liza Long.

    The reality of Liza’s blog is that she writes from her emotions, heart and mind. She has written the unspeakable, because she is honest about the reality of her life.

    Sarah on the other hand is a snarky anthropologist whose has fleeting moments of writers glory on Registan and Al Jazeera.

    Put the two women side by side, and Liza is the better mother, by far.

    /vent over 🙂

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