On Children and Mental Illness: Let's Have These Conversations
In the wake of the unimaginable shootings at Sandy Hook, I’ve read countless pieces about mental illness this past week. About our children. About the parenting decisions we make when a child shows signs of a mental illness. About what our society needs to do for people who struggle.
I struggle with mental health issues myself: I was hospitalized as a teenager, and I deal with anxiety as an adult. And so I’m following these conversations cautiously and carefully. The finger-pointing toward the shooter's mother seems off base. The "don't do this, do that" sentiment followed by an immediate contradictory argument is confusing. "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother," followed by umpteen, "No you are not" pieces. I sit here, deeply saddened and deeply concerned about what this tragedy will mean for children and adults who need mental health services.
I’m discouraged that we need to be so profoundly shocked before we can realize that mental health access is a vital necessity, and I’m worried that once some time passes, the conversation will go silent. But right now, I’m also heartened that so many of us, parents and non-parents alike, who have been talking about how access to mental health services -- or lack thereof -- affects us, our families and our country as a whole.
We must keep talking about mental health. We must keep talking about it until it’s as normal as talking about physical health. Right now it’s not. There’s still such a huge stigma. And as we’ve seen this week, people don’t agree about how best to discuss it. And so talking about it is an act of courage.
Side conversations like protecting your children’s privacy, journalistic ethics, and the like have also come up, and they should. Of course, protecting your child’s (and your own) privacy is tantamount; of course we need to respond thoughtfully to current events. But we can’t let that silence us; instead, we need to keep discussing it. I encourage you to start telling what you own of your family’s story. Or maybe mental illness is your own story, as it is mine.
Here's just some of what I’ve read this week:
Faith at Mad in America asks tough questions and tells her story in a moving post.
As an adult survivor of early psychiatric treatment, a recovery educator, and as a parent, I am deeply concerned that we live in a world that is so punishing of difference that parents are pressured to hurt their children, taught to view them through diminished perspectives and to hear their cries for help and efforts to voice distress as symptoms, manipulations, and fits.
I feel my blood boil when I read people throwing around diagnosis and what THEY would have done if THEIR kid was crazy. I read with so much anger then guilt. I promise you, Nancy Lanza went down with the guilt ALL parents of children with Mental Illness feel – WHAT COULD WE HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY??
BlogHer member bellejarblog makes the point that oversimplifying the mental health discussion at hand right now can be dangerous for those dealing with mental health illnesses.
At the end of the day, saying things like, “Now is the time to talk about mental illness,” is not going to help anything. It’s not going to make an event like this less likely to happen again. In fact, if anything, by continuing to spin the narrative that the mentally ill are violent killers, you are probably making it less likely for those with mental health issues to seek treatment. By making mental illness out to be this big, scary thing, you are making it more likely that friends and family will ignore any signs of problems in their loved ones out of fear and denial. By simplifying the gun control debate to something like, “Well, mentally ill people just shouldn’t have guns,” you are contributing to the idea that people with mental illnesses are scary, dangerous and cannot be trusted.
BeePea.com, a mother living with mental illness, points out that stories like this are not the norm for people living with mental health issues.
Most of the mentally ill people we see in the media are untreated and in their disease. It’s impossible to document how many of us are fighting back demons on a daily basis and winning, who are working hard to do the right things and take the right actions for ourselves, our families and our communities.
Specifically related, a post we syndicated by Dorid goes on to talk about the dangers of how we speak and advocate for mental health.
And I feel it's important to add that, in part, it's those of us who've advocated for the mentally ill who have allowed this to happen in our society. While it's absolutely true that schizophrenia does not always result in violence, and that it's actually a very small percentage of the mentally ill who are dangerous or violent, we've been so concerned with eliminating the stigma that we've also sat by and allowed government cost cutting to eliminate psychiatric hospital beds and services. There shouldn't be a cost associated with accepting that many of the psychiatrically ill are just like you and I, and because of that realization, there shouldn't have been a shortage of services for those who are not.
We need to start discerning between "sick", the "dangerously ill", and "evil" and treating each accordingly.
Rochelle Caplan, MD writes an important post on how we need to be addressing mental health but acknowledges there are problems getting where we need to be.
Lack of time often precludes pediatric professionals from seeing children without their parents and detecting early warning signs of homicidal or suicidal plans. Similarly, physicians might have time to talk to adolescents but not to their parents. As a result, they might miss hearing about red flags of possible aggression by the youth and/or his peers.
Heather at The Extraordinary Ordinary, once a social worker, points out one of the things wrong with the system.
My last day in social work was about eight years ago. Even back then, the system was crumbling to such an extent that there was a feeling of impending doom over the community of social workers who were living every day, sometimes 10-12 hours a day, striving to tame the beast. To love and care for the unlovable. To prevent tragedy. To reduce the number of expensive tax-payer paid hospital stays. To keep the truly dangerous off the streets. To provide education to families. To manage medications. To help us all. The money was being pulled from the programs and we watched in horror because we knew best how much those programs were needed.
Not every family that needs help with a mentally ill member seeks that help, but if the right community programs are in place, there is a better chance that they will.
Culturally Disoriented cautions readers on the discussions at hand for many reasons, not limited to how those with mental illness, like the author, are spoken of in these discussions.
2. Dehumanization of People with Mental Illnesses
In this national “conversation” about mental illness, you’ll notice something interesting: no one seems terribly interested in talking with mentally ill people.
The mentally ill are people we talk about, not people we talk to. We aren’t interested in having a conversation with them, despite the fact that they’re the ones most affected by the issue.
I hope -- a word I don't use lightly in the light of this dark sadness -- that something good comes out of these convoluted but exceedingly necessary conversations. I also hope that we think before we speak, acting and reacting with compassion and thoughtfulness in both word and deed.
If you are a parent of a child with mental illness or an adult who has survived or lives with a mental health diagnosis, don't hesitate to share your thoughts with us. Leave links, comments, well-wishes and thoughts as to what this might mean for the future of how we treat individuals.