|Photo by Charles Mims, October 2013
On the morning of December 14, 2012 I closed the door to my office and started to cry as the news of a tragic school shooting in Connecticut blew up my Facebook and Twitter feed. My then 13-year old son “Michael” had been in Intermountain Hospital for two days, placed there against his will after an inexplicable and violent episode of rage he couldn’t remember. After years of struggles, we still didn’t know what was wrong, or how to help him. I was exhausted, sad and afraid. The isolation of living with a child who had a serious, undiagnosed mental illness made me feel like there was no hope for me or my family.
That night, I sat down and wrote my truth. I told about the years of missed diagnoses, medications that didn’t work, costly therapies. I wrote about my worst fears for my son’s future. And as a national tragedy beyond comprehension intersected with my personal sorrow, I called for a conversation about mental health. My cry for help, which I published on my formerly anonymous blog, “The Anarchist Soccer Mom,” was picked up by The Blue Review and republished under the title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” The essay was shared everywhere. Many people wrote me to say, “You told my story! I am Adam Lanza’s mother too!” But a few excoriated me for talking openly about my son’s struggles with mental illness.
One year after the Newtown tragedy, where has that conversation about mental health led us as a nation? The official report about the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School could be summarized in five words: no answers, lots of guns. Lanza’s mental illness was certainly a factor. As the report notes, “the shooter had significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others, even those to whom he should have been close.” Like his mother.
As the one year anniversary of the shooting approached, with yet another school shooting in the news, policy makers were paying more attention to mental health. After meeting with the families of the Sandy Hook victims this week, Vice President Joe Biden, whose initial response to the tragedy was to push for tighter gun control, announced a $100 million increase in funding to help people access mental health services. Half of the money will come from the Affordable Care Act; the other half has been pledged for rural mental health care, which should be welcome news in states like Idaho.
Lots of things have been promised. For example, when the state mental hospitals closed, we were promised community based care. That never happened. The fact is that in December 2013, one year after Newtown, if you or a loved one is in crisis, you still have to call the police. And we continue to use prisons as the new institution to treat our adults and children who have mental illness.
In the past year, I have slowly found my voice as an advocate for children’s mental health. I haven’t done it alone — my son has joined me in calling for an end to stigma, by bravely speaking out about his condition on Nova and in a StoryCorps interview. We were honored to share an award for family advocacy from the Idaho Federation of Families, which my son placed prominently on our piano.
Where is my family a year later? I’ve had quite a bit of time to think about what I wrote. And I can’t sugar coat it: the consequences of my decision to put my name on my story were devastating to us personally, as we learned firsthand just how harsh the stigma of mental illness can be.
Yet there were also rewards. I researched and wrote a book, The Price of Silence. The book will be released by Hudson Street Press in the fall of 2014.which explores stigma and other barriers to mental health care for children and families as they try to navigate the healthcare system, public schools and the criminal justice system. I also had the opportunity to speak at TEDx San Antonio, where I asked the audience why we never see a picture of a child with mental illness in a grocery store checkout line.
My family has also found some answers. Michael now has a diagnosis — bipolar disorder — and medication that works. I can’t tell you how much this has changed our lives for the better. A year ago, I had almost no hope for my son. Now, we are talking about where he will go to college (he says Harvard or Oxford, but he’s going to have to bring his math grade up just a little bit).
Above all, I’ve learned this year that I am most emphatically not Adam Lanza’s mother. While I still feel a great deal of empathy for Nancy Lanza, who surely loved her son as I love mine, we are different in two important ways. First, by acknowledging the seriousness of my son’s condition, I am empowered to do everything I can to ensure he gets the treatment he needs.
Second, I don’t own guns, and I never will.
Some have speculated that perhaps guns were a way for Nancy Lanza to connect with her son. My son and I share some common interests too: writing, history and Greek mythology. As far as I know, a love of history never killed anyone.
Still, I believe that in the futile search for answers, too many people continue to blame Adam Lanza’s mother, the first victim of the tragedy in Newtown. Emily Miller of the Washington Times is representative of that view. As she explained in her Op Ed piece that followed the release of the official Sandy Hook report:
"In the end, we can’t blame lax gun-control laws, access to mental health treatment, prescription drugs or video games for Lanza’s terrible killing spree. We can point to a mother who should have been more aware of how sick her son had become and forced treatment.”If only it were that easy. Instead, numerous barriers still exist for children and families who need access to mental health care. In 1999, NAMI published a report called “Families on the Brink: The Impact of Ignoring Children with Serious Mental Illness.” That report addressed school shootings in the wake of Columbine:
"As we struggle to make the lives of all our children better in the wake of unthinkable school violence, we must not forget our children who have serious mental illnesses and their families who love them.”On December 14, 2012, more than ten years later, we watched again in horror as we witnessed exactly how devastating that impact of untreated mental illness could be to a community — and very little if anything had changed for children and families who needed help.
If 2013 was the year to talk about mental illness, let’s hope that 2014 is finally the year to act.
Watch my interview with Marcia Franklin on Idaho Public Television’s “Dialogue,” December 13, 2013.