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School Shootings: Why Does Everyone Talk Gun Control and Ignore Mental Illness? “I live with my son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.”

December 17, 2012

Everyone agrees on one thing with school shooters, mass killers, gun-toting murderers who shoot up public places:  they are sick.  Sure, we use that term lightly in many ways, sick of this, sick of that, what about mentally ill sick?  Why is it easier to talk about gun control than the lack of mental health help that would have allowed these sick young men to be treated instead of allowing them to find guns and kill?  I counted no less than five articles on the front page of Huffington Post about gun control measures after the latest school shooting, but I saw only one article about mental illness, and that was about the shooter’s mother: “I am Adam Lanza’s mother…”

Facebook has been lighting up with the debate, and while we can talk security in schools, of which we admittedly need more, because denial has never stopped a danger yet, when will we talk about mental illness?  When does anyone talk about how the frequency of gun-related attacks of this nature all follow the same pattern: male, 16-26 years old, “loner,” mentally ill, capable of finding guns he didn’t have to buy.  And there you have it:  he didn’t have to buy them.   Adam Lanza used his mother’s guns.  School shooters in the past have used parental guns.  They aren’t on a gun-buying spree and then shooting up shopping malls, schools, post offices, etc.  Buying a gun like that might trigger an investigation, but they are still finding guns.  So is the issue the guns, or is it the mental illness?  And if there are mentally ill gun-toting men out there, well, why should that limit the guns that I might want to own.  Why don’t we ever talk about the issue of mental illness when we talk about these shooters and these tragedies?  Clearly these shooters are separated from normal mental processes at the times of their killings.  In fact, while we are at it, why don’t we talk about all the other mass killers who are mentally ill?  Waco, laced Kool-Aid.  Dahmer, murder technique. Anthrax in the mail threats.  Taking out planes. Flying planes into buildings?  For some reason, in the wake of these killings, people want to blame the weapon of choice as opposed to the person who did it.  In Waco, guns weren’t needed. Dahmer didn’t use guns in the same way. People who flew planes into buildings didn’t use guns. (I am trying not to name killers’ names, because I think that might add to the problem.)  But in any case, people who want to kill have been chillingly diverse in their means, but they all have one thing in common:  mental illness.

In an eloquent piece on the Huffington Post, one mother relates the struggles of raising a mentally ill son, and what is glaringly evident, is the lack of treatment available to help him:

“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.

In fact, when I did an internet search of “son kills mother,” all articles, and there are thousands, talk about mental illness, part of America’s missing dialogue when it comes to killers. In the first page of the search, I found that only one son used a gun, the rest used knives.  Of course it’s easy to recognize mental illness when a son kills his mother, but why isn’t that mental illness easy to recognized before the kid kills his mother?  And why, with the profiles we have, don’t we help these parents of mentally ill children more?

I remember reading another article about a family grappling with a mentally ill son, and his father was pleading with officials to incarcerate his son to get him to treatment.  The officials didn’t believe this man’s son was a threat, and the man said something like:”I believe he is a threat, and the one who will pay the price will be her….(Pointing toward his wife and son’s mother).  Within the next year, the son killed his mother. Suddenly everyone realized he was  a threat.  So what is a parent to do with a child the;y know to be a threat but lack the resources to treat?  NO parent has handy anti-psychotics and sedatives to treat a mentally ill and dangerous child.  Parents have virtually no ability to push to get treatment for a mentally ill child.  There is emergency treatment, but longterm treatment?  What are those options?

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…

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.

So when do we listen to these mothers?  Why is it so hard to talk about mental illness?  The prison populations are full of the mentally ill. Are we, in America, failing to treat mental illness and just increasing our rates of incarceration as opposed to setting up treatment protocols to recognize mental illness and use involuntary commitment? Why is it that parents of mentally ill children have so little help, so little follow-up?

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.”

…God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.


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