On Adam Lanza, Mental Illness, and My Son

4 years ago

We have a myth in our society that explains tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary, and it goes something like this: When something bad happens, it's because hidden in our society are evil monsters, who prey upon the innocent, and that there's nothing we can do to stop these people but to arm ourselves with guns or prayer and hope they don't come for someone we love.

Image: © Wang Yiou/Xinhua/ZUMAPRESS.com

We're told to be sad, but to not be angry about things like gun control laws or the lacks in our mental health care system.

Now it's come out that the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, was reported by his brother to have suffered from a "personality disorder". It sounds benign. It is not. Personality Disorder is a diagnosis that includes all sorts of terrible psychiatric disorders, all of which include extreme behaviors. Cluster A Personality Disorders include paranoid and schizophrenic disorders. This psychiatrically ill man took guns that were legally owned by his mother, killed her, then went on a shooting rampage at the elementary school where, reports say, he attended as a child and his mother once worked as an aide.

Right now there's a lot of discussion on gun control. If I hear "guns don't kill people, people kill people" one more time, or a misquote of the second amendment, I'll scream. If Adam Lanza had gone into that school with something other than guns, if he'd gone in with a knife or a club or his fists, the death toll would have been less... even zero. I've heard over and over, if someone else had a gun, they could have taken Adam Lanza out before he killed anyone. It didn't work for his mother.

It seems that this has become a common theme: Take them out before they do any damage. Why are so few people talking about the real issue: that this young man was known to have a disorder that had potential for harm or self harm? Was there any treatment, any options that may have averted this tragedy? Other than simply shooting the mentally ill?

We live in a society where treatment of the dangerously mentally ill includes a 2PC (involuntary admission) which can last up to 48 hours, usually some sort or tranquilizer, then release with new or additional medication... medication which often takes 3 weeks to level off in the system, or to ascertain whether it will work at all on that particular patient.

And yes, I understand it's costly to keep mental patients in the hospital for longer periods of time, and yes, I understand that some people feel that this impinges on the rights of the patient, but compared to the cost of innocent lives and the rights of those who died and their families, that cost is worth every cent of insurance and tax money, and every court case that comes before a judge.

We are a society who has criminalized a certain class of neurobiological disorders. We would never criminalize cancer, or arthritis, or even Alzheimer's. Mental patients are being jailed instead of treated. Or their being let out in society, to be homeless, or to live with their mothers, rather than being placed in structured, therapeutic environments.

While the whole world is talking about the death of the children, it's the death of the mother which haunts me. As a mom who's had to hide or lock up eating utensils, bought shoes for the family without shoelaces, and endured years of doctors changing medications and diagnoses for her child, I can so easily see myself in her situation.

I would never consider having guns in a home where someone like my son lived. I was concerned about having forks some days. For the last 23 years I've fought the system for better treatment for my son, while the doctors moved him from a Cluster C Personality Disorder to a Cluster B then a Cluster A.

And now, when he's finally had a medication regime that keeps him fairly stable, he's in jail again.

Oh sure, he's not going to hurt anyone in jail. But he wouldn't hurt anyone in a stable, structured treatment setting either, and he'd have more freedom, better quality of life, and the opportunity to improve himself as a human being. Now he's learning that he's just a felon, and no different than those who are capable of choice and chose to do evil for their own selfish reasons. Suddenly it doesn't matter that he isn't sane. He's judged, not treated, then locked away.

My son has been under intense psychiatric care since he was four. But I can see myself in Adam Lanza's mother, and wonder if it were me found in my home with my face blown off by a shotgun, if people would scratch their heads and wonder if my son's "personality disorder" may have been a factor. If they'd wonder what the "motive" was, rather than realizing that it's not a question of motive.

The news keeps asking "How could this happen here?" and "What was the motive?" and the answer is that there may be no answer. How can we, as sane individuals, understand the mindset of the insane? We can have clues, glimmers of insight into the illness, but we can't make sense of the insanity, the senselessness of the kinds of delusions that lead a small population of the mentally ill to commit these violent acts.

And I feel it's important to add that, in part, it's those of us who've advocated for the mentally ill who have allowed this to happen in our society. While it's absolutely true that schizophrenia does not always result in violence, and that it's actually a very small percentage of the mentally ill who are dangerous or violent, we've been so concerned with eliminating the stigma that we've also sat by and allowed government cost cutting to eliminate psychiatric hospital beds and services. There shouldn't be a cost associated with accepting that many of the psychiatrically ill are just like you and I, and because of that realization, there shouldn't have been a shortage of services for those who are not.

We need to start discerning between "sick", the "dangerously ill", and "evil" and treating each accordingly.

Today so many people are talking about the tragedy of the loss of the children... and the focus is on that one, horrendous and mind-numbing point. Innocents, little children died. It's a tragedy. But there are other tragedies: the brave school personnel who put themselves between Adam Lanza and the children, the mother who was the first to die, literally facing her son who was pointing a firearm at her head, and Adam Lanza himself, who very well may have suffered from tortured delusions which lead him to commit these acts of horror and violence, acts which lead ultimately to his own death as well as the death of the innocents.

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