Reflections on Newtown

As our whole society continues to process what has happened in Newtown, CT, we also question what can be done to prevent a repetition of this awful violence. Mass slayings rightfully draw our attention and evoke our horror. But this morning I heard the statistic that since the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, more than a million — a MILLION — American have been killed in gun-related incidents. And while commentators continue to say “It should never have happened here” regarding Newtown, in truth, it should never happen anywhere.

A friend forwarded an interesting article today from a mother with a disturbed child.  

Among the adolescents who are my clients, I see too many — waaaay too many —  young men who could be the next Adam Lanza.  These are adolescent males who have problems in perception and rational thought patterns, who are socially awkward, and who have withdrawn from the world into a world of video gaming:  A video game at which they are adept is their only opportunity to feel like a conquering hero.  They become increasingly withdrawn, depressed and addicted (in the true sense of the word) to their gaming, and more and more hostile to their parents’ attempts to impose a more normal lifestyle.  Under it all, you know that they are sweet, anxious, quirky kids, but externally they can present as sad or scary.  Less frequently, the emergence of schizophrenia in late adolescent (with or without substance abuse as a trigger) exacerbates distorted reasoning, paranoia and erratic behavior.

It’s interesting that in the article the mom’s chosen punishment, to take away electronics, evoked a psychotic episode in her child.  I think the role of computer games and the violence in the media definitely exacerbates mental illness and alters neural pathways.

States are closing what few public mental health facilities we have in order to balance state budgets. A psychiatrist or distraught parent can have a child admitted to a psych hospital for a few days until he is stabilized, but then it releases him (under pressure from the insurance companies) until the next meltdown. Insurance companies will only cover the most acute episodes, very briefly. Absolutely no long term gain is realized.  School systems’ “alternative schools” are most often warehousing rather than educating.

The kinds of (private) wrap-around therapeutic boarding schools that I direct anxious, depressed and acting-out adolescents to are terrific places that provide a wonderful combination of nurturance, structure, consistency, and clinically sophisticated treatment.  But they are FRIGHTFULLY expensive ($7,000- $10,000 per month) for the many months required to change a child’s thought patterns and internalize healthier responses. So these therapeutic boarding schools are only available to the most affluent. (It breaks my heart that I can offer pro bono services to a needy parent for my work, but can’t do much to get past the tuition barriers of these programs!)  Again, insurance companies will only cover the most acute episodes, very briefly, and so their stingy coverage does not cover these programs nor does it lead to longer term mental health.

For our adult population,  the dissolution of our mental health system from the 1960’s on, with nothing built to replace the closing of large mental hospitals, has made jails the primary residential placement for the mentally ill.  And it goes without saying, there couldn’t be a worse setting for them.  In light of budget cuts in many states, education and mental health are the first services to be eliminated.  (Indeed, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana is closing all the public mental health beds in southern Louisiana.)  A huge percentage of the folks who kill police or are killed by law enforcement are mentally ill.

I hope that as educated, active people we can reach out to decision makers, recognizing that our culture of violence is a complex issue which will take a multi-pronged approach to improve.  I hope that we can also give some consideration to whether we are doing as much as possible as in our churches, social groups, schools and communities to help identify those in our midst with special needs.  Those families may need extra support; those children may be most in need of a peer group that a youth group can provide (even if one’s school doesn’t); we must provide safe places for them to grow, develop empathy, experience non-video successes, and avoid the kind of desperation than impelled Adam Lanza.