Monday, December 14, 2015

Three Years after Newtown: Hope

Parents for Care dinner in Baltimore, with
the SuperMoms (and Dads) who advocate for their
children who have serious mental illness
Three years ago, when a mother, 20 first graders, 6 educators, and a young man with untreated mental illness died by gun violence in Newtown, Connecticut, I was on the phone with a social worker in Boise, Idaho. He wanted me to press charges for assault against my then 13-year-old son, who had threatened to kill himself a few days earlier. My back and ribs still ached, and my arms were covered with bruises and bite marks sustained when I tried to keep my son from bolting into oncoming traffic.

When I heard about Newtown Friday morning at work, I put my head on my desk and sobbed. My younger two children were still in elementary school, and I couldn’t even imagine how horrible it would be to lose them like that.

Except I could.

With Representative Tim Murphy
My third son was in an acute care psychiatric hospital--again. After years of trying to find help for him, we still didn't have answers.

But I knew two things for certain that morning. First, my son was not a bad kid. He was not a monster, or a psycho. He was a kind, sweet, sensitive boy who suffered immense pain and deserved help.

Second, I was not a bad mother.

That terrible morning in 2012, without knowing any details other than the age of the shooter and the fact that his mother--and 26 innocent people--were dead, I felt like I knew everything.

So I wrote, "I Am Adam Lanza's Mofher." And I thought I was the only mother in the entire world who could sympathize with Nancy Lanza.

It turns out I was far from alone. Mental illness touches us all in some fashion. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five children will suffer a debilitating mental disorder before age 18.  Almost one in five adults will experience mental illness in any given year (excluding substance abuse disorders). l  And serious mental illness—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression—affects 10 million adults, or 4% of our population.  These men and women are too often shunted into a nightmarish “revolving door” of prison and homelessness because we do not have the community or medical supports in place to provide them with life-saving treatment. 

A reading from my award-
winning book at StoryFort
Three years after Newtown, I was able to travel around the country and see what's working in mental health--and why we still have so far to go. If you want to learn more about ways you can help children and families like minhe, click on the links below to learn more about these organizations, and think about donating if you are able to do so.

In January, I made my first trip to Washington D.C. as a guest of the Treatment Advocacy Center to celebrate an advocacy award given to Representative Tim Murphy for his tireless efforts to reform the mental healthcare system at the national level. 

In February, I spoke at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Arizona annual luncheon in Phoenix, where I was able to learn about crisis wraparound services provided to children and families. 

In March, I won a 2015 “Books for a Better Life” award for “The Price of Silence” and I participated with my son in a StoryFort reading hosted by the Cabin in Boise. 

2015 APA
annual meeting in Toronto.
In April, I spoke at the North Dakota Juvenile Justice conference and also visited with several parents whose children were struggling with mental illness. I also spoke at the Showers of Hope luncheon to support the Lindner Center of Hope in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Lindner family has a legacy of philanthropy in their community; they are now contributing their resources to help fund a truly revolutionary center of excellence for mental healthcare treatment and research. I also was the keynote speaker for the Idaho Children’s Home Society, an organization that provides counseling to low income children and families in our Boise community. 

With Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, author
of "Shrinks" (must-read!)
May was a busy month. I spoke at the Siouxland Mental Health Center annual conference and learned more about partnerships with mental health courts that reduced recidivism rates for people suffering from mental illness by more than 75%. That’s a huge savings, both in taxpayer dollars and in lives. I also co-presented a workshop at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting in Toronto. The workshop was the brainchild of Mental Health America’s thoughtful Patrick Hendry. Every advocate should read his paper on meaningful dialogue. Finally, I gave the keynote speech for Thresholds in Chicago, where I was brought to tears by the life-changing work their staff has done as they intervene with at-risk youth and give them a chance at a bright future.

September took me to Miami, Florida, to present at the 8th annual Chair Summit, where I met psychiatric care providers from all over the Americas, including Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman and Dr. Paul Summergrad, and learned about cutting-edge new research and treatments—and enjoyed an authentic Cubano and the best ceviche I’ve ever had. When I returned, I attended my first NAMI-Boise chapter board meeting. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is one of the nation’s most prominent advocacy groups and provides free education classes for the community.

The Oklahoma City Memorial
In October, I spoke at my first non “mental health” conference. Leadership Oklahoma decided to focus their annual meeting on mental illness and its impact on the Oklahoma community. Sadly, less than a week later, a young woman with mental illness crashed into a crowd of people, killing four people. Cathy Costello, whose untreated son stabbed her husband Mark, Oklahoma’s well-respected labor commissioner, was in the audience.   

In November, I was able to meet several of my mom advocate heroes in person at the Johns Hopkins annual Schizophrenia summit. The presenters, top researchers in their field, took time to meet with us as parents and answer our questions at an event organized by the inimitable Laura Pogliano, founder of Parents for Care.  Laura’s son Zac, who suffered with schizophrenia, died tragically at the age of 23 earlier this year. 

And now, on December 14, I’m in San Diego, preparing to attend the International Bipolar Foundation board meeting. Our board members include Randi Silverman, whose poignant film, No Letting Go, tells the hopeful story of a teenager struggling with mental illness and his family, and Kevin Hines, who survived a suicide attempt from the Golden Gate Bridge and is now sharing his powerful story to help others. 

Messages in Dutch Bros coffee lids.
Last year, on the second anniversary of Newtown, I wrote on the Huffington Post that we were “Two Years to Nowhere.”  Today, I have more hope. But real change depends on each of us. As a society, we have an obligation to provide treatment to those who suffer. As individuals, we have an ethical duty to treat one another with respect and compassion.

We still have a long way to go, but it feels like we’re finally moving in the right direction. 


Arlee Bird said...

Any move in the right direction is progress no matter how measurable that might be. You're doing your part to get an important message out. Let's hope there are those who will continue to be receptive to what you and others are doing.

Arlee Bird
Tossing It Out

Unknown said...

I just watch a documentary on rampant minds... the scary thought is I watched hoping to help my son.... he is hurting and can be so angry... I love him so much and it tears me apart to see him so angryphon and hurt... I look back and think what did I do so wrong for him to feel this way... when is is good he is amazing. Sweet and kind and loving but in those moments of quick change he scares me... it hate myself for being afraid of my child.... it pray to God is can break through to him before something happens. We talk about school shoots and terrorism in the hopes that he will understand never to go down that road. He always says he could never do that... there is no help in the mental health world... he has been to therapy, outpatient hospital therapy and diagnosed with ODD... he is 11 now.. it feel you pain and anxiety and know you are not alone. All i can do is huge him love him and let him know i am there no matter what.. thank you for sharing your story. It know how hard it is...

Jess' Mom said...

I saw a documentary that featured you and your son. Your son's symptoms mirror my daughter's to a great degree. Given the myriad of diagnosis we have received over time, ADHD, dyslexia, and anxiety disorder seem to be the most important to Jess. As her parents, we always supported her and tried to talk her through the out bursts. We would discuss alternatives to how she could have approached a situation. But most importantly, I think, we taught her to walk away. Her peace of mind was more valuable than a shouting match. 9th and 10th grade were the worst years. We were not certain she would even finish the 9th grade and had to move her to a different school. 11th was still hard.
At 19, she attends Berklee College of Music in Boston. I know she still has bad days and struggles, but somehow she seems to have 'grown out' of the blind tantrums. I hope you will see a similar reduction with age in your son.
I wish you the best of luck. I know you are walking a lonely road, but our children are beautiful and we are the only ones who will protect them.
Jess' Mom