On day five of what has for so many of us become a waking nightmare, it is increasingly apparent that the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy has ripped open a deep wound in the American heart — particularly for parents of kids with mental health challenges. Unlike the aftermath of other similar tragedies, Aurora and Tuscon are the two that come immediately to mind, since hearing the awful news of last Friday, it seems that no amount of conversation, in person or online, helps ease the pain we’re feeling about the events in Newtown.
No doubt part of our shock and sorrow has to do with the ages of those gunned down. And the accumulated trauma from the sheer number of school shootings we’ve endured before this one. But I believe there’s much more going on here. The children who died as a result of Adam Lanza’s bullets and his apparent mental illness may not have been our own flesh and blood, but the agony of saying goodbye to them has become a shared experience filled with equal parts grief and survivors’ guilt. Beyond compassion, the level of sorrow shared by so many is surely a manifestation of the unfinished business we’ve carried after decades of cowardly avoidance of the effects of gun violence and mental illness on our children and ourselves.
From my own perspective as a mother who’s faced mental illness in herself and her children, it is family mental illness that compels me to not look away from the awful images from Newtown. It is also family mental illness that compels me to speak out now and ask if it might be possible for us to come together to use this tragedy as a terrible lesson for prevention. And in the most irrational of my “if only” moments, there is so much I wish I could have said to Nancy Lanza.
I believe I can speak for the majority of Americans in saying that we want nothing more than to give whatever solace we can to the grieving parents of Newtown — while knowing it will never be enough. Still, in this short time, their children, along with the 6 teachers and school administrators who died trying to protect them, have become intimately familiar to us. For many of us, this sense of familiarity and profound empathy also extends to Adam Lanza, his mother Nancy, and Adam’s father and older brother who — unlike the rest of us –will never, ever be able to forget what happened on December 14, 2012.
Of course those of us not directly affected will lose the intensity of our grief. And yet, much as we try to get on with our lives, the terrible images of last Friday stubbornly slip back to the fore, especially at the end of each day, when, after completing a phone call with a grown child. or putting a younger one to bed, we feel an overwhelming sense of “Therefore but for the grace of God go I.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
I’m concerned, as we go forward, that our national conversation will go on two parallel but strangely disconnected tracks. Listening to news and reading online it’s as if people believe they have to choose only one cause for this tragedy. As if by settling on one thing to blame, keeping it relatively simple, we might get back some sense of control over our lives. Sorry, it ain’t gonna work.
The Tipping Point Has Arrived, At Least for Guns
As the realization that we’ve reached a “tipping point” about gun violence becomes self evident to everyone except perhaps the most hardened and paranoid members of the NRA, we feel relief as President Obama wakes up to his responsibility to lead us to some more rational control over these murderous weapons of war that have been allowed to return to our communities and enter our schools. But big as this step would be, it is simply not enough.
When it comes to mental health, as I’ve written in this blog and elsewhere, in the tragedies that play out, like this one, on the national stage, or in the privacy of our own homes, we are paying the price for allowing stigma to control our choices about getting mental health treatment for ourselves and our children. As families we’ve permitted secrets about mental illness in prior generations to remain buried — where they can be of no use in helping us understand what may be ailing our children.
I do not know what was ailing Adam Lanza. Nor do I know how many diagnoses his parents might have received for him, or how many treatments they tried with him. It’s not clear either whether Adam refused the treatment he may have been offered, perhaps forcing Nancy to do what so many mothers with mentally ill kids do — try to protect him from harm by making his care the center of her existence. I find myself wishing that Nancy Lanza had reached out for more help, that she had risked giving up some of her and Adam’s privacy and realized that his issues were far too complex to handle alone. From what has been revealed, it’s already apparent that a diagnosis of autism (or Asperger’s) does not suffice to explain how Adam lost his humanity to the degree it took to do what he did last Friday.
What would I have said to Nancy Lanza if I’d met her two days before the tragedy? Of course, “I’m mystified about why you would keep guns unlocked or somehow freely available to a troubled son — let alone why you would teach him to use them.” (Was this some form of denial?) But more than anything else, it would have been “Take better care of yourself, attend to your own psychological needs, and get more help. Mental illness takes a community. Don’t try to do this alone.”
Looking Squarely at Stigma
Too many parents feel the pain of stigma so strongly both within their families and from their communities that they wait too long to seek help for themselves and their children who may be suffering the early signs or even the ravages of serious untreated mental illness. I’m talking about a whole range of symptoms like paranoia, social withdrawal, extreme anger and aggression, delusions, voices, extreme anxiety, and depression. These symptoms come in all combinations, making a diagnosis something that only a qualified mental health professional — with the cooperation of a loving aware parent — can determine.
The most important change we can make to do the right thing for our children — along side rational gun control — is a greater awareness of these subtle and not so subtle signs that can tell us our that someone may be suffering from a mental illness for which they need our help; indeed, that they may already be in grave trouble, and, like Adam Lanza, present a danger to themselves and to other innocents.
In order to make this any positive legacy come of this tragedy there must be far greater amounts of money and attention given to public mental health. There must be greater regulation of health insurance companies to deliver on the promise of parity for mental health services. There is much to do, and all of it must proceed while we continue to mourn the loss of these beautiful children and their brave teachers.
I’m convinced that our grief can lead the way. If we give up our secrets and put an end to the stigma that has kept people from seeking and receiving help they desperately need, we will be creating a better, safer future for all of us.