Sunday, December 16, 2012

Please, Just Continue To Be Michael's Mother

I am so troubled by people saying that mental health is the REAL issue that needs to be addressed in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. People with mental health challenges have to deal with enough unwarranted stigmatization and marginalization as it is. People with Autism, Asperger's Sydrome, ADHD, chronic depression, chronic anxiety, personality disorders, and other mental health challenges are, on the whole, non-violent and law-abiding citizens. Many of the people dearest to me have mental health challenges. I have spent a great deal of time in my life getting to know people from across the Autism spectrum. They are among the kindest and gentlest I have ever known. I happen to have my own mental health challenges as well. I used to be self-injurious and I still suffer from acute depression and anxiety. It's not an easy thing for me to discuss without cracking wise (this is my defense mechanism) but I will do my best, considering the gravity of this issue.

Liza Long's now-viral blog post is being heralded as "brave" and "powerful." I believe it is neither. "Michael," Long's undiagnosed 13 year old son, is no doubt a child with behavioral challenges that need to be addressed. My heart goes out to him and to his family. And, yes, we need to do better in the United States and Canada to provide free and accessible health care for people like Michael. I have no problem with the idea that we need to talk about mental illness. We absolutely do. But let's take a close look at the language and its implications here. Long writes: "Now is the time to talk about mental illness ... That's the only way our nation can ever truly heal." Why? Why is NOW the time for a discussion about mental illness? A very dubious link is being made between Michael's rage issues in his formative years and the monstrous act that Adam Lanza committed on December 14, 2012. The manner in which Long and the media have been using terms like Autism and Asperger's prompted the Autism Research Institute to release a very carefully worded statement on the tragedy. The truth is, the great majority of people with Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, as well as those with other forms of mental health challenges are not to be feared. As Dr. Heather Stuart quite rightly points out, "mental disorders are neither necessary, nor sufficient causes of violence. The major determinants of violence continue to be socio-demographic and socio-economic factors such as being young, male, and of lower socio-economic status ... [Further], members of the public undoubtedly exaggerate both the strength of the relationship between major mental disorders and violence, as well as their own personal risk from the severely mentally ill."

It's difficult to comprehend that an argument based on facts (such as Stuart's) may go largely unnoticed and an argument based purely on feelings (such as Long's) is currently being lauded as persuasive and groundbreaking. I believe we have been taken in too easily by the myth of the "violent madman" whether it be through depictions in entertainment or by the media. In fact, Stuart's and countless other studies have concluded that those with mental health challenges are more likely to be victims of violent crimes. The last quote I will take from Stuart is an important one because it takes us back to the issue of "the REAL issue.": "Too much past research has focussed on the person with the mental illness, rather than the nature of the social interchange that led up to the violence."

What is the nature of the social interchange that led to the Newtown tragedy? Or, to put it more bluntly, what was the specific context? Here's what we know. In fact: Adam Lanza's mother was a gun enthusiast and actively participated with Adam in gun culture. She reportedly "loved" her guns and allowed her son access to them. Her guns included two traditional hunting rifles, and three guns that are basically unsuitable for hunting: two handguns and a semi-automatic rifle. These are the three killing machines that Adam Lanza took with him that morning, after killing his mother, to Sandy Hook Elementary School where he slaughtered 20 young children and 6 more adults. This twisted element of North American culture where, for some reason, people feel the need to fill their homes with killing machines commonly referred to as guns (and let's face it, guns have no other purpose) and to "love" these killing machines is the real issue here. There is no reasonably intelligent argument for the inclusion of guns in our culture. Full stop. The second amendment is outdated and needs to be repealed immediately.

I have faith that Liza Long's blog post was a genuine attempt to start a discourse on mental health. For that reason, I am thankful she wrote it. I would guess that she loves her children very much and wants what's best for them. This is why I hope she will see the problematic rhetoric in her proclamation of kinship and solidarity with Adam Lanza's mother. It is a much more powerful and brave message to say: "I will not provide my son with a similar context. I will not participate in my country's love affair with guns. I am not Adam Lanza's mother. I am Michael's mother."  


Graham Nunn said...

I am right with you on this issue JP... I have devoted my life to working with young people with mental heatlh issues and agree wholeheartedly that we need to be talking more about the impact on individuals, families and communities... but let's not muck about here... the gun laws in the USA are outdated and if there is no change, events like this will continue to happen with frightening regularity.

Anonymous said...

I agree whole-heartedly. This tragedy should be the catalyst for frank discussions about gun control. I work in the field and I fear that this careless (and unsubstantiated) association between mental illness and violent crime will place my friends and colleagues on the autism spectrum at greater risk for mistreatment.

Tang Qiuyue said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
voidlogic said...

I respectfully disagree. Guns are a scapegoat issue here; Look at the recent killing in China. "Villager slashes 22 kids with knife at elementary school gates in China";

People are quick to portray "assault weapons" as the issue, when most of what makes an a so called assault rifle different from any other weapon is aesthetics (pistol grip, collapse-able stock etc). If you put mudflaps on a truck it is still a truck. Take this away these items and you are left with a low power hunting rifle. People often use these so called assault weapons for hunting small game and deer. Adam also had a traditional shotgun with him, which in the situation would have been a much deadlier weapon for him to use, and I do not hear calls to ban shotguns.

What can be done with a gun can be done with any other weapon. I believe the real issues here are better healthcare of all mental illnesses and identification of that small minority of the mentally ill who are dangerous to others.

Our challenge as a society is to be able to do this in a manner that is compatible with our belief in civil liberties, with compassion of those ill, and in a manner that is effective in reducing the risk of violence.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful response; thank you!
YES, the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness --even severe psychotic mental illness --are NOT dangerous to others. I think having access to capable mental health providers is still key and a very important issue. IT'S NOT ONE OR THE OTHER, WE CAN ASK FOR GUN CONTROL AND MORE SOCIAL SERVICES! As for the Newtown tragedy, we don't know all the facts about Adam Lanza's household. The picture --accurate or not --of a house where he was encouraged to practice with weapons of mass destruction and had easy access to them ---would be something that a capable mental health or social service professional would try to intervene on --in the hopes of shutting that down and re-orienting the family.

Maggie said...

Thank you so much for posting this. As a mental health professional and an immediate family member of a person with severe mental illness, I was deeply disturbed by the immediate leaps that were made between the horrific killings in CT and mental illness. Adam Lanza may have been mentally ill, or he may not have been. At this point, we don't know. To equate violence with mental illness is unfounded, illogical, and further stigmatizes the millions of individuals in our country who struggle with mental illness every da y. The majority of people with mental illness are NOT violent, and to label this as an issue of mental health is extremely damaging to them.

K said...

Very well written. I'm linking to this.

Monica said...

When we talk about mental health, we need to talk about everyone's mental health and especially how we support children with "different" wiring (though most children are uniquely wired). You are clearly a mother who is reaching your child. I don't think Liza Long does or Adam Lanza's mother did. Liza Long and all families need us to support children's mental and emotional health. Especially those whose behaviors we don't comprehend. We really need to talk about the kind parenting that can can do that.