I never knew Nancy Lanza. I never heard of her or her son Adam until they both perished in a spray of bullets last week.
I have never met Lisa Long either. She is the courageous parent who wrote the I am Adam Lanza’s Mother article that has gone viral in cyberspace since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
I have known many women and men like them, however. They are decent parents and foster parents who have children with emotional disturbances. They do everything they can to get mental health and educational services to meet the needs of their kids, and yet it is never enough.
Some live in fear of their own children, or those with whom they are charged to care, because their children’s behaviors often spiral out of control. Irrevocable violence is always a heartbeat away with these families.
I have sat in emergency rooms with these parents following emotional meltdowns from their progenies. When a child has a psychiatric episode in Ohio, they are directed to an emergency room for evaluation. After about 5-6 hours, the child is either sent home because he or she has fallen asleep, or they get admitted to a psychiatric unit.
Often, an ambulance ride and full court press attention in an ER is just the ticket to make the raging beast settle down and look like an adorably cute cherub. The doctors say, “doesn’t look suicidal or homicidal to me,” and they act condescending towards the parents as if THEY are the problem.
If a child does get admitted to a hospital psychiatric ward, they are usually discharged in a few days after being placed on high doses of psychiatric medications that have not yet had time to take effect.
And then the parent and family counselor get back on the roller coaster.
Too many visits to the hospital in a short amount of time leads to the ER doctors telling you to call the juvenile justice authorities. To them, it is a behavior problem, not a medical or psychiatric issue.
Never mind that showing dysregulated behavior is how a child often manifests emotional distress.
In the wake of Sandy Hook and the long list of previous mass shootings, you hear the cry, “Why didn’t someone see the signs and do something?” I can tell you that I have seen the signs with some very volatile youth. I have tried to do something. And I have been chastised and bitterly rebuked for trying to go around the usual barriers to getting kids help.
Thankfully, none of my clients ever got to the point that Adam Lanza did. But I have seen some close calls.
Our mental health system is broken. We must do something about how we deal with individuals with emotional disorders if we ever want to see things improve. But fixing the mental health system alone is not sufficient in ending senseless violence with our children.
- We must do everything possible to get high powered weaponry out of the reach of those with no need for it, especially those likely to demonstrate instability. As long as assault weapons are available to the masses, troubled people will get their hands on them and use them.
- We must find a way to reduce the amount of violent stimuli in our culture, including virulent music, violent movies and TV shows, and video games.
- We must sufficiently fund daycare and after school programs so that youth are properly supervised.
- We must provide trauma based interventions to every youth affected by domestic violence, community violence, abuse, neglect, disaster, or other types of trauma.
- We must start responding in a way that meets individuals and communities’ needs, instead of simply responding in the cheapest method possible.
- We must get off of our political high horses and acknowledge that social programs, such as those most at risk in the fiscal cliff debate are the very things that we need to keep our kids safe.
I left the mental health profession a year ago because I no longer felt effective. After spending 20 years working with high risk youth and families, I was no longer able to make the personal sacrifices and risks to my own well-being that it took to go to work each day. It is sad to me that it happened, but I had to stop.
The saddest part is that it does not have to be this way.
The majority of people experiencing emotional disorders are non-violent and low risk. They are no harm to anyone, and yet they too suffer from the complete inadequacy of our mental health treatment system.
If you ask me, that is just wrong.
Will we really do something to change it all?
As they say, it takes a village. It is up to all of us to change priorities and purposes. I am hopeful, but wary.
Please, surprise me world.
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