Guns, Yes, But What About Mental Health?

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.

13 Responses to “Guns, Yes, But What About Mental Health?”

  1. The Hidden World of Depression | Healthcare Musings

    […] talked about my own depression a bit in an earlier blog. But the situation with my friend’s daughter  reminded me again of how differently we […]

  2. What a Lost Passport Taught Me About Gratitude | Healthcare Musings

    […] I also thought about a good friend of mine who has a son with  significant mental health issues. I wrote about her here. […]

  3. Adam G. Chaikin

    The stigma regarding mental illness will continue to be the over arching problem we have to face. When I worked in the UK, people took days or weeks off from work under a mental health provision related to stress. I’m not sure the brits get it any more than we do, however recognizing that it is there instead of avoiding it is a step in the right direction. Every person in the world is touched by someone with mental illness. If you think you don’t, you are either naive or lying to yourself. In our household, we talk about mental illness as a medical disorder. We liken it to diabetes and refer to it in that fashion. Just as you would not make fun of a diabetic for their illness, neither should you make fun of anyone suffering from depression or an OCD. People need to understand that mental illness is prevalent in our society and not a form of weakness in any way. Poeple shoudl nto be ashamed of their issues. They shoudl seek help and discuss them openly. Some of the most successful people in the world suffer from mental illness and you’d never know it. They are successful because they get help and manage it effectively. I have suffered from depression for most of my adult life. That has never held me back from achieveing all of my goals- and then some. I am fortunate to have an a amazing, loving wife that puts this all in the right perspective. I am fortunate to respond well to medication. People that need help should get help. Would you deny a diabteic insulin?

  4. Alison @ L is for Latte

    Yes, that is definitely a piece that needs to be addressed. I am positively sick over what happened last week in Connecticut, and I thought Liza Long’s essay was frightening and sobering and right on. I had a friend as well whose son had serious mental health issues, and once he reached adulthood, there was nothing they could do for him. When he was picked up by the cops several states away, they begged the police to keep him there until they could get there to take him home. The cops let him go, because they had no reason to hold him, and he left and killed himself.

  5. Dave Mittman, PA

    Thank you for your courage. The dirty little secret is that our brains have illnesses. All our brains. You know those physicians that don’t make eye contact? Yep. You know the people that have to line things on their desks up at work? Yep, them too. It’s our brains, and they are not all made to order. We bring along Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa and many others. If they were “wild” what does that mean today?
    I do not have all the answers. We need better mental health services. We need to be able to get people treat,net and not just put them all on multiple medicines that dull them out until they ultimately stop taking them. we need to treat drug abusers who are not violent better, as they are usually treating their brain diseases. We need better and more mental health services (PAs and NPs) so people don’t wait till it’s too late to seek help. We need so much.

  6. Pam Volzone

    Excellent post, Debra. But even to me, it is apparent that your friend’s son suffers from bipolar disorder. Perhaps the problem is that either she or the treating psychiatrist are concerned about starting someone so young on medication to stabilize his mood swings. Thankfully, there has been a push in the past decade to perform more clinical trials in the pediatric population. I urge you and your friend to look into this further.

    • Debra Gordon

      Thanks, Pam. Actually, bipolar IS one of the tentative diagnoses. He’s currently on lithium as well as other medications.But you’re right, psychiatrists are loathe to assign this diagnosis to young children.

  7. The Mothers Cry Help : NO QUARTER USA NET

    […] has gone viral. Now there is Deborah Gordon. She actually is a friend of my neighbor. Ms Gordon writes in a similar vein to Ms. Long: I’ve been treated for major depression for 22 […]

  8. David

    Thank you for this excellent piece. I hope you don’t mind, but I posted it into a conversation on Facebook where we have been discussing this very issue.

  9. Meryl Hershman

    Spot on Deborah. Great article. Your friend is lucky to have your support and that is something I hope her friends and family will always provide to her. As the sister of a severely disabled brother – when there is no cure for the underlying problem – the support goes a long way.

  10. carole rosenberg

    well written and on target…we’re not terribly removed from the snakepit days of the past when it comes to understanding mental illness. thanks for your informative article.


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