Read this now: “I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother…”

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.

Read this eloquent and heart-breaking story from a mom whose 13 year old son is mentally ill. She writes:

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.

mental health
Read this eloquent and heart-breaking story and then print a half-dozen copies, put them in envelopes and mail them to your Congress critters (three copies), your governor and state legislators (three copies).

In 1975, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (based on the 1962 novel) cast a glaring light on the state of mental institutions.

Then in 1980, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 (House vote, 277-15; Senate vote, 93-3).

It came on the heels of four years of hearings and a presidential task force benefiting from First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s active involvement. Philosophically it affirmed Pres. John F. Kennedy’s Community Mental Health Centers, an attempt to thwart hospitalizations. It fit into the safety-net values championed by Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson with the passage of Medicaid and Medicare.

We began the journey to where we are today the very next year, with the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 which repealed (pdf) Carter’s signature bill:

[I]n 1981 the Reagan administration orchestrated the repeal of the Mental Health Systems Act, consolidated the categorical mental health programs into a block grant, and cut spending on those programs about 25 percent.1 The vision of an organized, community-based, and dedicated mental health system ended.

If you’re old enough to remember the Reagan years, this may also ring a bell:

Reagan’s social policy is best seen as an abdication. Reagan’s economic policy was to adjust government regulation so that it favored business once again, and social policy was merely an outgrowth of this larger issue… As for the mentally ill, certain changes that their families and practitioners wanted were gained… All in all, business interests were served. Families and doctors were appeased. Patients were forgotten.

President George W Bush picked up the pieces, created a commission and pushed for reform.

Despite endorsement by the administration and many legislators, parity legislation has been stalled
for years, because the Republican chairmen of the relevant committees and the party’s congressional leadership have not pressed for its enactment. (New England Journal of Medicine, 2004, pdf)

Conservatives again refuse to talk about guns. Will they continue to also boycott discussions about mental health? Not if enough people raise hell.

So go raise some hell.

Flickr photo, Cover of a 1969 Mental Health magazine from the UK : used with Creative Commons License

I posted this on my Facebook past Saturday night. I should have posted it here then, too.

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  • ordinarysparrow

    Kathy, you make some good points, but this issue is so very layered and complex…I sure hope that mental illness does not become the sole scapegoat for all of this…that is the cry from the ‘you are not going to put any kind of regulation on OUR guns’. It is so darn complex… it is said that the high percentage of these mass shooters are depressed and socially awkward, yet only a small small percentage of depressed and socially awkward children ever become violent. I do not think there are any simple answers such as lets just make sure that the violently mentally ill do not have access to weapons… of course that is true, but how is that truly discerned effectively… Hasn’t that been the failed strategy?

    There is more to know of the story of Adam Lanza and his mother…. for example if this mother, that shares so poignantly, do you think she would of been taking her child to gun practice on a regular basis? If Adam was her child would she allow numerous guns to be in his reach?…This mother put all the knives in the household tupperware and kept them with her…Adam’s mother was teaching him to shoot and giving him access to assault weapons…There may be some significant differences in these mothers. Maybe one level would be to have parents responsible for how their guns, with their permits, are used and are left available to their children?

    I think it is so much more complex than keeping weapons from the mentally ill… what you write is true… it is just has so many hidden layers and shadows of how the mental health system turned abusive into itself in the prior years…

    Just chirping outloud…

  • sheknows

    I appreciate your article Kathy. It sheds light on perhaps some much needed social responsibility for our mentally ill. I too hope you are not consciously connecting the threads for the fabric of the NRA advocates, because it only will make a burial shroud for our children.
    We do have alot of problems in this nation with all sorts of conditions assailing us at every turn, contributing in a large part to our mental health issues. We do need more , no better legislation which addresses our need to be alert and vigilant as well as compassionate.
    Certainly I believe now that healthcare providers need to inform family and perhaps other professionals when a patient is diagnosed with problems which could affect not only their lives but the lives of others. There has to be a “humanity clause” if you will which supercedes the patient/doctor confidentiality privilege. Heck, we have eyes in the sky which can come down now on anyone who even mentions words like BOMB, or TERROR online. Surely we can medically monitor the mentally ill who could possible harm others.
    Don’t want to sound like 1984 here,but we do need to take sharper notice of what is going on around us.

  • ordinarysparrow

    There is already a Common Law Duty to Warn for mental health workers…If the mental health worker assess a real possibility of harm to the client through self injury or to others, the mental health worker is allowed and obligated to breach confidentiality and report…

    Each State has different laws, but there is a Common Law Duty which out-weights the confidentiality between helping professionals and patient when violence is likely.

  • sheknows

    Thank you OS. Yes I am aware they can report dangerous patients now. I was just wondering what happened to the reporting process for the Batman killer by his psychiatrist. He was able to go online and purchase all kinds of weapons and equipment, and no one even knew he was off his rocker. Well, no one that could have intervened if he tried to purchase weapons, like maybe some authority.
    I know what I am saying sounds too Orwellian, and could be seen as a violation of rights, but would it hurt to put an “alert” out for local and other authorities to keep an eye on him? Not too hard to do in this day and age.

  • zephyr

    Mental illness? Who cares. Guns? More! More! More! Guess what? The NRA had demonstrations going outside the White House within minutes of the Lanza shooting. Our country is horribly screwed up and has horrible priorities. How much worse will it need to get?

  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    There are materials on the internet from Eric Harris’ and Dylan Klybold’s actual mothers in their voices. If you search, you may find also extensive testimony before Ken Salazar who was then top cop in Colo who held hearings about Columbine massacre. I was present for many of the hearings, and I cannot even begin to tell you how personal, how humble, how clearly all the witnesses and those involved spoke about the details without any gloss whatsoever.

    Ordinary Sparrow, thanks and also there are here where I live [I can literally see Columbine High School from my window], teachers, pastors, shrinks and others have ‘duty to warn’ authorities, and ‘duty to report’ anyone who they hear has been intruded upon or made threats to harm self and/or others. It is not up to the teacher, pastor, shrink and other in the helping professions to decide whether the threat is credible or harm is occuring, but to report it to those who will investigate/ intervene.

    Yet, as JUST happened today, some who are witnesses to those who pose clear threat, hand wring only for they feel afraid sometimes for various reasons, and they are not required to report. Thankfully the person told us, and we was able to convey to appropriate agencies. I am more concerned Sparrow about those who anguish over matters without conveying to those who can intervene.

    False positives? Yes. Intervention in time, Often.

    The President is speaking at the memorial right now, so must go be with family. Thanks to all here.

    Hang in there. Do not lose heart.

  • sheknows

    Yes Dr. E, Exactly what I was talking about.

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst

    I’m not sure how this post could be interpreted as equating mental illness with murder — but to be clear, that was not my intent.

    I found the personal story compelling and scary – not because I thought her son would become a mass murderer but because there is clearly a breakdown in our health care system. Our Senate just refused to support a global treaty that extends our ADA (conceptually) around the globe. We are a county that ignores mental health issues and worships at the altar of gun violence (maybe those two things go hand in hand?).

    The fact that two presidents as diametrically opposed as Jimmy Carter and GWB could have tried to move us forward in mental health legislation — and to have Republicans refuse to listen to their own president — made me a little crazy.

    I have two aunts at the moment (paternal) who are living in institutions because of their lack of sound mental health. My grandmother (paternal) was in a nursing home in the 70s (at the time of One Flew Over…) due to dementia. I had a dickens of a time getting help for my mom who developed dementia before her death. We’ve been spared anything else other than garden variety depression. (I am speaking with my tongue firmly in my cheek.)

  • http://www.americaincontext.com Barky

    What scares me with the “mental health” approaches is the witch hunt aspect of it. This is just asking for abuse. By asking people to basically turn over anyone showing “symptoms” to hospitalization, well, that just scares me.

    As I said over dinner last night, “all elephants are mammals, but not all mammals are elephants.” So too with mental illness & mass shootings. By taking the “report symptoms” approach, you’re basically infringing on the rights of those who suffer from those symptoms, marking them forever.

    There are plenty of people with various conditions who live perfectly normal & safe lives but occasionally show symptoms. Must we curse them all by encouraging everyone to report “symptoms”?

    It seems the best answer is to screen gun purchases. You want a gun, then you forfeit your right to privacy & go through the process & must prove you’re not a psychopath. If you don’t want one, then you can live your own life regardless of any mental health condition you have.

    Note I am being a bit off topic here. There should be mental health coverage & programs in this country. I’m just afraid we’ll be back to the old days of making people pariahs because “they’re different”.

  • ordinarysparrow

    Kathy thanks for this post, for what you outline is totally on target…And when i read the woman’s story, i think a child such as her son is very high risk for violence…I too know parents with children that act out without conscious and the plight of the parents and children is sad and frustrating due to our many social inadequacies and failures. Almost impossible to navigate…I followed Dr.E’s suggestion to read up on Eric Harris and Dylan Klybolds parents and even after 12 years there are still strong voices that blaming the parents.

    One thing i have thought on today is how many of these incidents talk about highly intelligent children that are shy then they take an even greater introverted turn inwards around puberty as they become even more shy and socially withdrawn and awkward…Just a couple years ago i read that new brain research revealed that shyness is due to brain physiology in children…Surely there is great need for the funding for more research on the brain physiology of mass murders…..I really bet brain physiology has a very big role to play in these cases…

    One of the things i remember is how after Reagan’s big push to privatize mental illness there were mental health hospitals galore for about ten years for those that had good insurances….It became big business until the insurance companies set strict limits..and kinda like Block Buster they were gone almost overnight…

    Mental health issues is definitely a place where privatization has been a big failure…It should be a cautionary tale for those that would like to privatize Social Security and Medicare….

    Barky.. you express very clear my own concerns.. thanks

  • KP

    Great article, Kathy. I also found it compelling. As well, scary and incredibly frustrating for the mom. And, I feel badly for the young man in this case or any man or women who lives with such deep pain and discomfort. I have tried to imagine life on a day to day basis where the mental anguish is so great that I would consider killing myself, or others. I can’t. That must be a living hell. I have been distraught for periods of my life when in great physical pain or emotional pain from death in my family, but there was a legitimate reason for my deep discomfort. Mental illness must be so perplexing to the afflicted.

    More and more we are seeing severe eating disorders and addiction treated as medical illnesses. The stigma of mental illness needs to be lifted just as it was for coronary artery disease or cancer. The patients themselves ought to feel safe asking for help and parents need to feel they have medical care available to them. Education and access to care will help steer patients toward getting help. Some professionals claim that as many as 4% of the population are sociopaths. For context, that is 12 million people or half the number of people who suffer from diabetes.

  • zephyr

    Sorry I didn’t make myself clear. My comment was about how low a priority mental illness is in this country (which is a shame) whereas the ability to own and carry dangerous weapons is held by a great many people in some kind of reverence. Twisted priorities and all.

  • KP

    Dr E, at the Columbine hearings, was there discussion by the mothers of Eric and Dylan about mental illness? I am wondering if the moms had any inclination that the boys were ill. Thank you in advance.

  • http://www.americaincontext.com Barky

    I heard this author speak on NPR a while ago. His book covers parents of children who are different than they are. Included is a section on the parents of criminals. I have not read the book yet, but it certainly seems interesting. I’d like to see a whole book devoted to the topic, not just one chapter. http://www.farfromthetree.com/

  • KP

    @Barky — Yes, Andrew Solomon is the author. I saw him on the TODAY show. Very interesting book that took a decade for him to research and write.

  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    KP; both Dylan and Eric had been previously evaluated by mental health professionals. I believe that occurred when they were taken in to police station for riffling a van. Eric had been prescribed Luvox, as I recall, a powerful drug. All these years since then, I speculate given its side effects, if it was a factor in him losing all restraint. I think it is possible.

  • KP

    Dr E, that is what I was getting at. There is an increasing list of young adults and kids who are prescribed anti-depressents who become suicidal or harm others. Today, the drugs are prescribed relatively commonly and I wonder if they should be reserved so the sickest. Another one of those troubling medical grey areas I guess. Blood thinners prevent pulmonary embolism but can enable brain bleeds. High blood pressure meds help bring down dangerous BP but have numerous and uncomfortable side effects. Best to treat what we can when we can, nutritionally and with exercise. Simple, but not easy.