Not talking about mental health is killing us, violently, cruelly, repeatedly. Long before Michael Swanson murdered the 2 clerks in Iowa, his mother had been working tirelessly to find him help and for years she lived in fear of and in fear for her son just like so many other mothers and dads with scary unstable children.
Working as a volunteer guardian ad-Litem with abused & neglected children, mental health issues are so apparent and so important to a large and growing segment of our society (3 Million children each year are reported to child protection services – add to that all the other children suffering from diagnosed & undiagnosed mental health issues).
66% of the youth in our juvenile justice system suffer from diagnosed mental illness and fully half of them suffer from multiple and chronic issues. The amount of Prozac, Ritalin, and other psychotropic medications being prescribed to youth in America without adequate mental health therapy is recognized by a growing number of experts as dangerous and unsustainable.
Too many mothers seeking help for mentally troubled children are told to have their child charged with a crime to get treatment; Rikers Island, the LA County Jail, and Cook County Jail in Illinois, housed the nations largest treatment centers in 2011 (this should be embarrassing to American legislators, maybe it would be if they knew about it).
As far as I know, Adam Lanza was not a juvenile delinquent, ward of the state, and was never involved in the child protection system. If Adam had been identified & treated as a depressive youth, or another mental health issue, allot of people would be alive today that are being grieved for instead, Unfortunately, it is the exception, not the rule, that a mental health conversation is ever had or maintained at a level that might help the person involved – we don’t have the will or the institutional capacity to deal with it until after the madness kills.
If the mental health facility that was built at Red Lake MN after Jeff Weise murdered his grandfather & fourteen other people before killing himself, had been built prior to Jeff’s writing about homicide & suicide and asking his elders for help, allot of people would be alive today that are being grieved for instead. We can say that about more and more people every year it seems.
In my work and writings I know of many instances of strong willed, smart, and dedicated moms and dads trying to find help for a child that frightens them with bizarre and dangerous behaviors only to be ignored, turned away, or otherwise thwarted from accessing critically needed care for their child. The violence and fear these families live with is a blot on our society.
That we as a people just don’t like to talk about mental health goes a long way in explaining the huge dropout rates and poor performance in America’s schools, the giant prison population, and the dangerous streets in so many of our communities. It really explains the violence.
Until it’s your child, the mental health conversation isn’t that important (then it is the most important conversation in your life).
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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.)
In Minnesota, good school security but stretched services for kids’ disorders
On Friday as news of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut hit the Internet, I was in downtown Minneapolis at Macy’s’ holiday display on a field trip with my younger son. We were having a great, if exhausting, time. For a rare moment, the mother in me and the education writer were in perfect harmony.
What teachers want most, in my experience, is to know that they are making a difference, and this group of Minneapolis teachers clearly was. They were clearly invested and effective with their rambunctious fifth-graders, attuned to the small moments in which each might be coached on a particular skill or a victory reinforced.
And then my phone began buzzing with horrific news. I put on a poker face, which I wore through Santa’s animatronic kingdom, through the delicate exercise of getting every child a cookie without breaking the bank and through a marionette show in which a pair of stuffed trees cracked terrible puns.
With every kid back on the bus, the lead teacher looked at her phone, too. Her face crumpled, drawing the attention of another seated a couple of rows behind her. As the phone got passed around, the adults worked hard to look anywhere but at their kids. Me, too: As grateful as I was to know where my boy was, eye contact would have tipped him that something was terribly wrong.
The unvarnished, gut-twisting truth is that there is nothing to prevent a Newtown from happening here at any time. And that’s not going to change until we deal not just withaccess to guns but with the fact that schools bear a disproportionate share of the impact of years of steady cutbacks in funding for children’s mental-health needs and other vital services.
News media were still putting out conflicting reports as of press time, but it seems clear that the Newtown shooter had both an arsenal and a developmental disability that was not being addressed. The school in question had the same kind of good security my kids’ buildings do, and the internet is awash in tales of Sandy Hook teachers whose nimble thinking kept the carnage from being worse.
Attention given to security since 2000
Security and safety protocols in Minnesota schools are generally quite good. Policymakers started paying closer attention in 2000, after Columbine. Emergency plans were revisited after the 2003 shooting at Rocori High School in Cold Spring and the 2005 tragedy at Red Lake High School.
A special state funding stream aimed at health and safety needs miraculously escaped the budgetary bloodletting at the Legislature during the last two years. And much in the way that other government agencies have begun making emergency preparedness an everyday issue, schools have, too. Minneapolis Public Schools last summer christened a mobile emergency response command center that can quite literally be driven to the scene of everything from a weather-related disaster to a Newtown.
School doors are typically locked and electronically controlled, visitors are logged, and by law teachers and administrators hold five lockdown drills a year. I visit a lot of schools and I can’t think of an exception. At many, teachers wear the equivalent of walkie-talkies on lanyards around their necks so that the entire building can be in instant communication if need be.
And yet kids bring guns to schools. In the nine years since my oldest entered kindergarten, we’ve had three episodes: a gun an elementary pupil brought to school not to use but to show his friends, a rifle brought to a middle school by a high-schooler looking to intimidate someone and — this last I learned of Friday as news trickled down to the younger set — a day a couple of years ago when someone pointed a gun at No. 2’s bus.
Indeed, while I was taught in kindergarten to “stop, drop and roll” in case of a fire, both of my kids were taught not to touch any gun they might come across at a friend’s house, and to instead find an adult to tell.
Untreated mental illnesses
Meanwhile, the number of fragile, volatile kids depending on schools for intensive services is skyrocketing. Thanks to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) we know, for instance, that one in five children has a diagnosable mental illness, yet 70 to 80 percent either do not receive treatment or receive inadequate care.
And in Minnesota, we know that cuts in state funding to health and human services have made it harder for needy kids to get help. In Hennepin County alone, the number of youth placed in residential treatment, foster care and corrections fell by a third between 2008 and 2009. Long-term placement in residential treatment programs fell by almost 40 percent during the same time.
The insurance industry doesn’t want to shoulder these long-term expenses, either. Psychiatric beds for anyone are scarce; psychiatric beds for kids are rare as hen’s teeth. Even parents of means are frequently stymied.
The needs don’t go away with the money, of course. They get shifted onto the public schools, which are quite properly required to address the rights and needs of children with disabilities, including violent behaviors that often signal undiagnosed mental-health or special-ed needs.
By law, schools can’t turn these kids away, nor are they reimbursed anything approaching the cost of providing services. Some places skimp. And the balance comes out of general-education funding — charitably described as flat at best — which means fewer services for all kids.
News media made error after error in the rush to report what happened in Newtown. It seems likely that whatever investigators piece together Adam Lanza had some sort of disability — “A developmental disorder that often left him reserved and withdrawn,” the New York Times reported — that had not been addressed appropriately.
He was 20, which puts him within the window in which he would have been eligible for continued special-ed transition services, federally mandated programming designed to help young adults move from high school to higher ed, the work force or another appropriate long-term arrangement.
Scant special-ed transition services
Yet the reality in Minnesota is that these transition services are deplorably scant, leaving lots of young people as isolated as reports suggest Lanza was.
And finally, let’s not forget that hideous though the thought of an entire first grade classroom wiped out in seconds is, Newtown was a workplace shooting, too. A principal, a school psychologist and four teachers died doing extraordinary things that should not be part of their job descriptions.
Me, I want the teachers I spent Friday with able to show up for work this morning confident they and their kids will enjoy the safety and security that will allow them to spend the day making that difference.
The Antipsychotic Prescribed To Adam Lanza Has A Troubled History All Its Own
By now the whole country is fully embroiled in the Gun Control debate, spurred by the grisly murder of 27 people, mostly kids, at the Sandy Hook Elementary school last Friday.
Guns might not be the only problem though.
New York Magazine wrote a piece about shooter Adam Lanza’s supposed “aspergers” syndrome as a “red herring” meant to distract from the real problem (guns, of course, the subject goes without mentioning).
Inside the piece though they report Adam Lanza’s uncle said the boy was prescribed Fanapt, a controversial anti-psychotic medicine.
Fanapt was the subject of a Bloomberg report when it passed regulators, after previously getting the “nonapproval” stamp. Why wasn’t it approved, you might ask?
There are many reasons, some of which have to do with competing entities in a competitive market.
The main cited reason for the rejection was that it caused severe heart problems in enough patients to cause a stir.
Maybe more importantly, though, Fanapt is one of a many drugs the FDA pumped out with an ability to exact the opposite desired effect on people: that is, you know, inducing rather than inhibiting psychosis and aggressive behavior.
In fact, Fanapt was dropped by its first producer, picked up by another, initially rejected by the FDA, then later picked up and mass produced. The adverse side-effect is said to be “infrequent,” but still it exists, and can’t be ignored.
The reaction invoked by the drug in some people is reminiscent of the Jeffrey R. MacDonald case, where a Green Beret slaughtered his entire family and then fabricated a story about a marauding troop of “hopped up hippies”.
MacDonald though, had Eskatrol in his system, a weight-loss amphetamine that’s since been banned in part for its side effects of psychotic behavior and aggression.
These drugs are not the only ones that can cause the opposite of their desired effect. Several anti-depressant medications are also restricted to adults, for the depression they inspire in kids rather than eliminate.