I’ve been treated for major depression for 22 years.
I tell you all this because it’s time that those of us with psychiatric diagnoses cut the chains of stigma that keeps mental illness locked in a closet, relegated to whispers, viewed as a sign of weakness, poor parenting, indulgence. Just as it’s time to have an honest discussion about gun control in this country, it’s also time to have an honest discussion about our mental health system.
We still don’t know if Adam Lanza, who killed 26 women and children last week and then shot himself, had been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. But I’m pretty sure there is a mental illness in there somewhere. I’m pretty sure his mother went through hell trying to find him treatment and help. And I’m pretty sure she was stymied at every turn.
I know this because I’m watching my friend go through the same thing with her 9-year-old son. Like the heartbreaking essay by Liza Long now circulating widely on Facebook, my friend has a son with serious mental health issues. One day he’s a lovely, smart, kind little boy. The next he’s completely out of control, a danger to himself and those around him. He’s threatened suicide. Called his parents words he shouldn’t even know the meaning of. Spent days pretending he’s a monkey.
My friend is lucky in one way. She has enough money to pay for testing, psychiatrists, special schools, a full-time “shadow” at school, most of which her health insurance doesn’t pay for. She has her own business, so she can take time off several times a week for the multitude of doctor and therapist appointments, when the school calls and says her son is out of control and must be picked up, for the research needed to understand what the doctors and therapists tell her.
But really, my friend and her family are living in hell.
Friday night, after the horrific shootings, she broke down, sobbing that she was scared that one day her son would be in the headlines. Liza Long has the same fear. Every mother of a mentally ill boy (and nearly all mass murderers are boys) has the same thought.
Liza Long’s son is 13, strong enough that when he flips out she has to call the police or take him to the emergency room for sedation. There aren’t enough inpatient psychiatric beds for kids like him or my friend’s son. There’s a national shortage of pediatric psychiatrists and therapists. We have little, if any, evidence on the efficacy and risks of the antidepressants, antipsychotics, and sedatives these kids are prescribed.
So parents do the best they can. They keep their kids at home unless they can afford $50,000-a-year residential schools. They ask–heck, theyplead–for help from law enforcement, medical, and education officials. And they fight to keep their kids from being locked up in juvenile detention or, as they get older, prison.
It’s a losing fight. A mental health expert told NPR last year that more Americans receive mental health treatment in prisons and jails than in hospitals or treatment centers, and that the three largest inpatient psychiatric facilities in the country are in jails.
We need options for families like my friend’s. We need better research into the mental health issues of children. We need clinical studies on drugs and therapies for these kids.
But more than anything, we need to cut the chains of stigma around mental health issues, come out of the closet, share our stories, and demand that we pay the same attention to depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, and the plethora of other mental health diagnoses that we pay to cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Because while guns kill people, mental illness is typically what drives someone to pick up that gun in the first place.