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Some Thoughts on the Newtown Shooting


On Dec. 14, 2012, a disturbed young man, Adam Lanza, walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut with two hand guns and a semi-automatic rifle and killed twenty children and six adults. 

From that terrible moment, our country has been engaged in a fierce dialogue as we try to understand why and how such a thing could happen. Most of the conversation has revolved around gun control which is a highly political and polarizing argument. We will leave that conversation to others. 

However, the mental health aspect of the horrific act is another matter. As we seek to find answers to why an apparently intelligent young man would do such a thing, it may be paramount that we, as a country, begin a dialogue on mental illness and the impact of today’s culture on individuals who may be struggling with it. To that end, we would like to present the following points.

1. It is unclear whether Adam Lanza had had some treatment in the mental health community. Some reports indicated that the young man was unable to feel pain or empathy. Other reports state that his mother was trying to get him committed.  However, it is important to understand that mental illness assessment is not foolproof.  Mental health professionals must depend on the client's honesty in self-reporting. Some sufferers of mental health issues can be very good at hiding their real thoughts or presenting a false front. Usually an experienced mental health professional can spot the lie and get around it. But not always. 

2. Most persons suffering from a mental illness and in treatment are not a danger to society. However, those who are not being treated have a far greater risk of harming themselves or others. For some, medication is essential for a reasonably normal life. 

Unfortunately, our society has dropped the ball in regards to mental health care since the 1970’s. Ask any cop or corrections officer and you’ll be shocked to hear the number and percentage of mentally ill who are caught in a perpetual cycle of arrest, incarceration and release. In fact, according to one Bureau of Justice Statistics report, more than half of all state and federal inmates report mental health problems. Unfortunately, our corrections system is not set up or prepared to treat mental illness. Nevertheless, in many cases, a parent who fears her mentally unstable child cannot get help unless the child commits a crime. There is no place to turn other than to the police, and the police cannot take the individual into custody because he “might” do something harmful.

 There is a battle between the need to commit the unstable person and the need to honor that person’s civil liberties. If there is a threat of suicide, the police can take the individual to a local hospital, and in most states he will be kept for 72 hours then released without any long-term treatment or follow-up. In some states, an individual who continues to demonstrate a risk of hurting himself or others after the 72 hour holding period may be held for an average of three to seven days. Since many psychiatric medications take from two to six weeks to become effective, that is not enough time to treat truly profound mental problems.

We moved away from the asylum system in this country in the 50’s and 60’s and for the most part for good reason. But, the focus on civil liberties and mainstreaming even the deeply disturbed has not served us well. Families have been left without resources for getting long-term treatment for their loved one and no place to take their loved one, voluntarily or otherwise, until a crisis passes. It has become clear that we need to have a serious conversation about creating new resources for those few mentally ill who may be a danger to society.

3. In addition to a "village raising a child", it is most helpful to have two invested parents involved in giving their child boundaries. Boys need a strong, positive male role model as they grow up. Without it, they tend to grow up in packs…like wolves. Too many boys are growing up in fatherless homes with their only examples of male behavior found in violent video games, movies and the questionable antics of professional athletes. Whereas boys need a positive male role model to show them how to be a mature, responsible man, girls need a positive male role model in the home to be an example of what she should expect and require in regards to how her future spouse should treat her and her children.

Furthermore, children growing up in single parent homes are most often financially disadvantaged, so lack the resources and opportunities for enrichment available to children in intact homes. Poverty is a strong indicator of later problems such as crime, drug abuse, unwed pregnancies and lack of education.

4. Greater effort must be put into keeping weapons out of the hands of the mentally unstable. Of course, this can’t occur until this country improves its mental health system over all. Although Lanza didn’t use an illegal weapon, any weapon is deadly in the hands of someone who has lost touch with reality. It will remain forever a mystery why Lanza’s mother kept a high power weapon in her home when she was aware her son was unstable. Common sense tells us that not only should guns have been removed from the home, but also anything else which could be used as a weapon against himself or others. 

5. More attention should be paid to the issue of “police assisted suicide”. Sometimes, the mentally unstable will create a situation in which police are forced to respond to what should only be a mental health issue. The mentally unstable person will brandish a weapon, forcing the police through their protocol to shoot and kill the individual. (Police protocol in this situation is protection of bystanders, their fellow officers and other first responders.) The individual has thus effectively killed himself by forcing the police to shoot him. As we mentioned above, we need a conversation in this country about interventions for the mentally ill and their families which would occur before the situation becomes a law enforcement issue. Police and EMS cannot do their jobs when facing a disturbed person carrying a weapon.  In addition, the situation causes serious trauma for police officers, EMS workers and other first responders. And in fact, according to recent reports, some police officers who responded to the Sandy Hook shooting are still unable to return to work due to post traumatic stress issues.

6. More resources need to be dedicated to identification and treatment of the mentally ill at as early an age as possible. This will require cooperation between parents, school personnel, day care personnel and mental health resources. The most dangerous thing a loved one can do is ignore the warning signs or pretend that the problem will just go away on its own. It won’t.

 Untreated mental illness will often snowball as the sufferer attempts to self-medicate with alcohol or the abuse of legal or illegal drugs. What could have been a temporary set-back can become a life-long struggle as the individual ends up in the criminal justice system (with a criminal record) rather than the health care system where he can get the help he needs.

Will it ever be possible to ensure that nothing like the Newtown massacre will ever happen again? No. Even if all weapons were turned in, the bad guys would still have them so they would be available to the unstable among us. The recent case in China of an individual mowing down a group of middle schoolers with his car is proof that there is no simple solution. But, maybe we as individuals can begin the conversation about providing better resources for people like Lanza’s mother who feel they have nowhere to turn. And we can certainly educate ourselves about the resources which are currently available and support family and friends who may have need of those resources, because no one should have to face this problem alone.