There are many things that make me uncomfortable about Liza Long’s piece, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother: A Mom’s Perspective on the Mental Illness Conversation in America,” republished by the Huffington Post.
I’m not normally one to second guess or criticize other mothers since there is so much in my own history as a mother that could be fodder for plenty of discussion. But because this piece has gone viral and so many folks think that this is the defining issue around the Sandy Hook School shootings, I really feel compelled to say some things.
First, her son may have serious mental health problems but what he doesn’t have anymore is his privacy. He’s not a defective toy. He’s a person. He has a life to live. Will this exposure help him?
Second, if the stories about wielding knives, hitting, and hurting people are true, then the writer seems to be putting her other children in danger. At the very least, she is subjecting them to significant trauma and in that way, Michael’s mental health issues are likely causing issues with his siblings. Seven and nine-year old children should not require a safety plan in their own home.
Third, there are residential treatment programs for children and adolescents. The social worker in the article is dead wrong that the only way to get services is to get her son charged with a crime. Right now, in this country, there are countless well-established, high quality residential treatment facilities with skilled staff, tremendous experience, and documented results. Children can be voluntarily admitted to residential treatment by their parents up to the age of 14 in Wisconsin, after that they need to consent. Surprisingly, an adolescent with serious mental health issues will often voluntarily consent because s/he is frightened and exhausted and ready to seek relief and help.
When a child has serious mental health issues, the best parenting in the world won’t help. S/he needs all the professional knowledge and skill available and the sooner the better. Yes, sending a child to residential treatment is a drastic step. It is very hard to drive a child to a residential treatment facility, sign the forms authorizing the professionals to provide treatment, and say goodbye, watching the tears roll down his face. I know. I’ve done it. It ranks as the hardest, most painful thing I’ve ever done as a parent but it was essential for his future and the well-being of our other children. It changed his life and saved our family.
The mistake is waiting. Thinking that a new strategy or regimen will work. Imposing consequences to influence behavior that is being dictated by a child’s mental illness. Threatening and cajoling. Thinking that if you were a better parent, you could figure it out. Give it up. It won’t work. No parent has the skill to deal with a child with serious mental illness.
To Ms. Long, I would say love your son enough to know that others, more skilled than you, need to help him. Find the best residential care possible, get him in, visit often, participate in therapy, and take care of yourself and your other children. Your protective strategies – making sure your other kids have escape routes, carrying your household knives around in a Tupperware container – are the signs of an amateur in dealing with mental illness. Like the frog in the slowly boiling water, it is easy to lose sight of how out of whack a family’s life becomes when one member’s untreated mental illness is its centerpiece. It is possible to regain a normal life for yourself, your other children, and Michael but it requires you to do what you think is the worst thing of all to do – put him out of your house and into a treatment facility.
He can get well. Recovery is possible and that should be the goal. A life of violence and mayhem is not inevitable for him. Nor is a life of fear and unhappiness the inevitable price your other children have to pay for his mental illness. Now is the time to act. Do the hard thing.