Thursday, February 15, 2018

Dear Congress: If Mental illness Causes Mass Shootings, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

It’s easy to blame mental illness, but we fail to mention that treatment works and recovery is possible for many.

For mothers of teenagers like me, news about a school shooting never gets any easier. We experience the same dread, the same despair, the same fear that someone will attack our children’s school. In between mass shootings, we drill our children on what they would do. We check on their social media accounts. We try to pretend that there’s some sense of safety in a world that always seems full of random, unpredictable violence.

I’m the mom CNN used to call whenever there was a school shooting. And today, one day after 17 children who are the same age as mine did not come home from school because of another mass shooting, I’m angry. Predictably, politicians have tweeted meaningless “thoughts and prayers.” Also predictably, some Republicans have tried to shift the blame for the latest massacre to the isolated actions of a “mentally disturbed individual.”  

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting five years ago, I shared my story of parenting a child with violent behavioral symptoms of a then-undiagnosed mental illness in a viral essay entitled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” In that essay, I wrote, “It’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.” 

Now, I’m concerned that we are having the same blame and shame conversation without any meaningful action, as this viral Facebook post shows.  

Today, with the correct diagnosis (bipolar disorder) and treatment that works, my son Eric lives in recovery. In 2016, he even gave a TEDx Boise talk about his experiences.  Eric is a normal high school senior who, like many of the Parkland, Florida students, is planning for college next fall.

Today, I feel that blaming mental illness for an epidemic of violence in the wake of so many mass shootings has become a meaningless trope. If politicians and the National Rifle Association really believe that mental illness causes mass shootings, it’s time to put their money where their mouth is. Here are a few suggestions:

1.       Provide funding for research into treatments and cures, perhaps by donating the millions of dollars that the National Rifle Association gives to their campaigns.  

2.       Continue to support parity for mental and physical health, currently required by the ACA but already under threat in my own state.  

3.       Stop blaming children and their parents for the appalling lack of community mental health services and supports.  

4.       Understand that when treated, people who have mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Treatment works and recovery is possible.  

5.       Adopt reasonable and bipartisan gun control measures that focus on suicide prevention, since more than 60% of deaths by gun violence in the U.S. are completed suicides, a tragedy that disproportionately affects the brave men and women who serve in our military.  

Most people can agree that universal background checks and allowing the government to track gun violence statistics (currently prohibited by federal law) are good first steps to better understanding and controlling our nation's clear gun problem.

To be transparent, I live in Idaho, a gun-loving state. I grew up in a family that hunted, and my brothers taught shooting sports at Boy Scout camp. I have enjoyed shooting sports in the past. While I do not personally have guns in my home because of my son’s illness, I know many responsible gun owners, some of whom live in recovery. 

Yes, it’s true: people who have mental illness can be responsible gun owners, which is why mental health advocacy organizations including the National Alliance on Mental Illness believe that “Federal and state gun reporting laws should be based on these identified traits, not mental illness.”   

People who are in treatment for mental illness and are compliant with treatment should not be treated any differently than anyone else. To focus on mental illness as the sole cause of mass shootings is a clear example of the pervasive discrimination and fear in our society. In fact, while it’s true that at least one-third of mass shooters seem to have had an untreated mental illness, a more common predictor of this kind of violence is a history of animal abuse or domestic violence, as is the case with the Florida shooter. Both of these deplorable behaviors are actual crimes, and both of them should require immediate intervention including loss of gun rights.

But mental illness is not—and should not be—a crime.

It’s time to act.  Build the community mental health treatment centers. Fund research into cures. And most importantly, stop blaming by association the millions of good people who live in recovery for the violent actions of a few.

Monday, February 5, 2018

We Are All Star Stuff

Cosmic Webs, Neurological Disorders, and Human Compassion
Image credit: GUI.Brush Blog,
On a recent Friday evening, I took my 12-year-old daughter to a free Boise State University public astronomy lecture presented by Dr. Christy Tremonti,  assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who leads a sky-scanning spectrometry project to map the chemical composition of galaxies. If Walt Whitman had heard this learned astronomer, I promise he would not have been bored and wandered outside to stargaze. With visible excitement, Tremonti shared the realization, expressed by Carl Sagan, that “We are star stuff.”

“Think about it,” Tremonti gushed. “Right now, the blood flowing in your veins—in every single person’s veins—contains iron that was born in the center of a star.” 

Tremonti then touched briefly on the mysterious dark energy and dark matter that make up 95% of the universe.  She showed the audience a new (to me) model of galaxy creation, with galaxies forming as nodes at the intersections of a cosmic web. To me, this image looked remarkably like the human brain’s neural network. 

I’m not the first person to make this observation. In a 2017 Nautilus article, astronomer Franco Vazza and neuroscientist Alberto Feletti observed:
It is truly a remarkable fact that the cosmic web is more similar to the human brain than it is to the interior of a galaxy; or that the neuronal network is more similar to the cosmic web than it is to the interior of a neuronal body. Despite extraordinary differences in substrate, physical mechanisms, and size, the human neuronal network and the cosmic web of galaxies, when considered with the tools of information theory, are strikingly similar.   
As I thought about the astonishing similarities between our brains and the universe, my mind turned to the news of Morgan Geyser’s 40-year sentence to a mental institution. Morgan and her friend Anissa Weier were just 12 years old, the same age as my daughter, when they carried out a plan to stab their friend in an attempt to appease Slenderman, a shadowy mythological Internet figure who epitomizes the unseen dark matter of the World Wide Web. 

Under a cruel and misguided Wisconsin law, Morgan and Anissa were both charged as adults and both pled guilty, Morgan to attempted first-degree murder, and Anissa to being party to a crime. While incarcerated, Morgan was diagnosed with juvenile-onset schizophrenia, a rare and serious neurological disorder that can cause a child’s sense of reality to bend and break. 

I met Morgan’s mother Angie shortly after the attack. Angie was emotionally bruised and battered from the media circus that assaulted her family. As often happens in cases where children are charged with sensational crimes, the Internet determined that Angie was undoubtedly to blame. She was a terrible mother. 

I can personally relate—when my essay “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” went viral five years ago, I immediately became the Internet’s Exhibit A for bad parenting, all because I talked about my child’s then-undiagnosed mental illness. 

In fact, Angie Geyser is a remarkably competent and caring mother by any standard of measurement. She is involved in both her children’s lives, has a clear moral compass and models it for her children, and works hard to provide them with a stable and supported life. After Morgan’s diagnosis, Angie fought tirelessly to get her daughter medical care, since untreated psychosis can cause brain damage.   

Morgan Geyser, treated, with her mother Angie in 2017
(photo used by permission of Angie Geyser)
In April 2016, I interviewed Angie by telephone, planning to write an article about her experiences. While I ultimately concluded that the subject matter—a mother losing her child—hit too close to home for me personally to write about it,  one line from that interview with Angie has stuck with me: 

“She’s herself again. She is treated and now she is our Morgan again, the sweet loving child we knew. She is not a danger to herself or others.”

This statement was so significant because anecdotally, my experience was exactly the same. My own child was sick with an undiagnosed mental illness and often had violent behavioral outbursts. In 2013, after my blog post caught the attention of a specialist in pediatric bipolar disorder, Eric was correctly diagnosed, started treatment including medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes, and it worked. For five years now, my son has lived in recovery. And in fact, that outcome is common for people who live with mental illness. When treated, they are no more likely to be violent than anyone else.  

But sadly, most people in our society live in fear of those who have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. While these mental illnesses affect just 4% of the population, they cause a whirlwind of “dark matter” in the media. Charging children as adults in itself is horribly wrong, but what happened to Morgan because of her mental illness is just as bad. Our fear of people like Morgan Geyser far outweighs our fear of the unknown and unseen universe.

This pervasive cultural fear leads to harsh consequences for those who commit crimes while living with mental illness. In fact, research has shown that “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity” pleas result in longer incarceration times than people would have incurred if they had just pled guilty. New York Times writer Mac McClelland wrote in 2017:
Though forensic detentions get little attention, they can range from ethically questionable to flagrantly unconstitutional and illegal. In 1983, a national study found that Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. patients often lost their freedom for twice as long as those actually convicted of the same offense.
Another type of plea now available in 20 states, “Guilty but Mentally Ill,” also tends to result in longer institutional stays and is opposed by the American Psychiatric Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.   

What if Morgan Geyser had been diagnosed with a brain tumor instead of schizophrenia? Would people have been so quick to blame her and her mother? 

In fact, researchers are increasingly understanding schizophrenia as a biological disorder of neural networks, the brain’s “cosmic web.” One 2016 study noted that “Cognitive impairments are one of the core symptoms associated with schizophrenia, and manifest even before the onset of the disorder. Altered neural networks involving PFC contribute to cognitive impairments in schizophrenia.”  

Today, Morgan is in treatment, but it took 19 months from her initial diagnosis to get the medical care she needed—and treatment is not always guaranteed for people who have mental illness in prison. Her mother told me that Morgan “wants to stay on medication. She feels better. She has insight into her illness now which she didn’t have previously.”

If Morgan had been diagnosed with a brain tumor that caused her actions, I like to think that most people would probably be celebrating the medical miracle that healed her. Instead, as the comments on ABC News’s interview with Morgan’s mother demonstrate, blaming and shaming continues to define the conversation about children’s mental illness.  

I want to stress here that we don’t have to feel any less sorry for Morgan’s unfortunate victim—and I am personally truly sorry—because Morgan acted under the influence of now treated psychosis. It doesn’t make the victim’s trauma any less serious or the act itself any less awful. 

What makes the whole situation more awful, however, is refusing to acknowledge that treatment has worked for Morgan, that she is in recovery, and that she is no longer a danger to herself and others. Instead, because of her brain illness, Morgan may spend the majority of her life locked away from society. Substitute “brain tumor” for “schizophrenia.” Is such a life sentence fair when the “tumor” has been treated and the behavior is no longer dangerous?

I thought about all of this—crime, punishment, parenting, and mental illnesss—as my daughter and I left the astronomy lecture. Sadly, the stars were hidden behind winter clouds, but as we drove home, we saw the glorious super moon peak through, spreading silvery tendrils across the sky, like the gasses that streamed toward galaxies or the neurochemical axons that stretch toward soma, ferrying our best guesses about reality.

My lovely, lively 12-year-old daughter chanted softly in the moonlight, “I am made of star stuff, you are made of star stuff, we are made of star stuff.” 

We only see 5% of the universe. And we still know so little about the human brain. That is why, above all else, we must be kind to each other.  If only we could replace fear with wonder, judgment with compassion. If only we could understand that all of us—parents and children, sick and well—share a fundamental cosmic reality: iron atoms forged in stars flow in our veins.