You are probably not Adam Lanza: Mental Illness, Violence and the Perils of Speculation

I wasn’t initially going to blog about the viral Huffington Post article ‘I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother’: A Mom’s Perspective On The Mental Illness Conversation In America by Liza Long. There’s already been a number of responses. Notably The Girl Who Was Thursday’s You Are Not Adam Lanza’s Mother. There’s also been some excellent commentaries on the subject by One in Four editor Mark Brown on this blog, and also by Mental Health Cop. However, a couple of conversations I’ve had today left me wanting to throw my tuppence in the ring.

Just to recap, Long’s article is a response to the tragic recent events in Newtown, Connecticut, where a young man called Adam Lanza carried out a school massacre. Long is the mother of a 13 year old boy who seems both troubled and challenging. She describes a lot of frustrations both in understanding her son and accessing support. The rhetoric she uses has left many readers very concerned.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

Many commenters argue that this is cruel stigmatising of a young boy, comparing his undeniably challenging behaviour to that of notorious spree killers. This segment also raised concerns.

His face turned cold, and his eyes were full of calculated rage. “Then I’m going to kill myself,” he said. “I’m going to jump out of this car right now and kill myself.”

That was it. After the knife incident, I told him that if he ever said those words again, I would take him straight to the mental hospital, no ifs, ands, or buts. I did not respond, except to pull the car into the opposite lane, turning left instead of right.
“Where are you taking me?” he said, suddenly worried. “Where are we going?”

“You know where we are going,” I replied.

“No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!”

Removal to a place of safety, or a punitive and unnecessary hospitalisation in response to a non-credible suicide threat?

These responses have in turn been met with another set of angry counter-responses, that this is not rejection and stigmatisation, but simply the frustration of the mother of a child with special needs and challenging behaviour.

Given that I’m a CAMHS practitioner, perhaps I should give my qualified professional opinion. Is this a child with a neurodevelopmental condition such as autism or ADHD? Or an unhappy child developing a set of attachment issues as a result of being stigmatised and rejected by his family? Or some combination of the two?

Okay, my expert formulation is as follows: I don’t know. How could I? I’ve never met this child or his mother.

There are aspects of what is described that could suggest a condition such as autism – there’s mention of what might be sensory issues and savant skills. It’s also fair to say that Long’s rhetoric does concern me, particularly in comparing him to spree killers. I do wonder whether a calmer response to his threats of suicide might have avoided a hospital admission. The reference to him having taken “a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals” by the age of 13 also makes my clinical nerves twitch. The age-old motto of healthcare is, after all, ‘first do no harm’.

But ultimately I have to respect the fact that I don’t know this family, and all my qualifications don’t alter this.

But what I will do is draw attention to a couple of conversations I’ve had online today. In a Facebook discussion (quoted with permission) a woman called Harrie told me, “The behavior of the kid in the piece actually sounded a lot like what I was like when I was ill with bipolar, and it started about the same time… I WAS like that, and I continued to be and was sectioned more times than I can remember and pumped full of shitty drugs, but now I’m doing post grad at uni and it looks like I’m gonna get a healthy grade for my first term here – so y’know, these things aren’t always predictors, they’re more likely to be signs of something being horribly wrong.”

Meanwhile, in the discussion thread to The Girl Who Was Thursday’s blog post, Kate A replied to a comment by me, saying, “I was both a lot like the kid described in the original article as a kid, and I’ve worked direct care and case management in a psychiatric setting.”

Needless to say, neither Harrie nor Kate A have ever taken an AK47 to their local primary school. I’m willing to go out on a limb here and say that I strongly doubt that Liza Long’s son ever will either.

We don’t know Liza Long, and we don’t know her son.

None of us (including Ms Long) knew Adam Lanza. Perhaps nobody truly did.

Sometimes a mother and a son feel that they don’t know each other. This may or may not be true in the case of Ms Long and her son.

Many questions are (rightly) being asked about what happened and why on that terrible day in Connecticut. These questions may or may not be eventually answered. In the absence of information, it’s easy to fill the void with speculation and prediction. However, that can just as easily lead to assumptions that may turn not to be correct, and predictions that may never come true.

Sometimes, it’s better to avoid speculating for the time being and just focusing on mourning the dead.

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About Zarathustra

Trained as a nurse, currently working in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Co-editing the Not So Big Society blog. May possibly be an incorporeal being called Phil Dore. All views expressed are in a personal capacity and not necessarily the views of my employer.

6 Responses to “You are probably not Adam Lanza: Mental Illness, Violence and the Perils of Speculation”

  1. So I also read Liza’s post and for me the main point of the piece that I took away was that it was less about the specifics of her boy’s condition and more about her plea for government to take responsibility for the mental wellbeing of its citizens (as opposed to arguing about how relevant gun laws are to these kind of horrific tragedies).

  2. I noticed your responses on Thursday’s blog, and I thought they were extremely well-considered. I agree with Ms. Long’s overarching point that mental health services need to be greatly improved, but I didn’t agree with her approach of forcibly making her son analogous to Adam Lanza at all. Or her use of her real name with her son’s real image, thereby condemning him to being forever “the kid whose mom think’s he’ll be the next Adam Lanza”. I had a *lot* of reservations about that post, so thanks for writing this.

  3. I can relate to Ms. Long’s article. The mental health crisis is real, and when you’re a mother of a child with a mental illness, it can seem, most of the time, that you are alone & there is no help. This mother is absolutely right in that there is no help for a child unless they are violent & act out. Not all children act out, therefore the are not critical for care & are swept under the rug, until they do become violent.
    I went months with a teenager who wouldn’t get help, who was spiralling downward. I tried to get help from the doctor, but he’s an MD, he would prescribe the standard “antidepressants”, but it didn’t help. Over the years I was told that therapy won’t work if the child doesn’t want it. After several suicide attempts, still no help. If they won’t go therapy, how do you get a diagnosis? So the child does finally get violent (with a knife), gets arrested, gets hospitlized. The worst case senario for a parent, with a silver lining…hospitalization – finally hopefully a diagnosis! WRONG!!!! “Your child has depression, anxiety, blah, blah, blah…” WRONG!!! These doctors are suppose to treat & diagnose their patients, not offer the easiest explanation to get rid of them. They hand me back a teenager that is still not correctly diagnosed, who is hating me, & worst, NO BETTER. Here you go parent, you handle it. Then your child turns 18, and they are now unleashed into the world. Still no help for them…they don’t want it. NO help for the parent who has tried everything to help their child.
    My child was never abused, we gave the best we possibly could. It doesn’t matter because we tried & the system failed us & therefore has failed everyone. I could be Adam Lanza’s mother & it scares me.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Newtown « MentalHealthCop - 18 December 2012

    [...] which varies from country to country.  Some UK Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) will not accept referrals for ‘Oppositional Defiant Disorder’ or ‘Intermittently Explosive Disorder’: [...]

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    [...] You are probably not Adam Lanza: Mental Illness, Violence and the Perils of Speculation (theworldofmentalists.com) [...]

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    [...] think we may have educated an MP today. #win”. And, since Creasy then retweeted a link to Zarathustra’s blog post analysing the “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” piece, maybe some of her 24,000 Twitter [...]

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