This is a hard post to write.
It’s easy to say, in the abstract, that calls for “more mental health services” in the wake of a mass murder are stigmatizing. It’s much harder to talk about how that stigma actually feels, what it looks like, what its consequences are.
Yesterday a lot of people I know started reposting an article called “Thinking the Unthinkable,” or its various re-posts under the title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” The author of that article discusses, in detail, her 13-year-old son whom she describes as having uncontrollable outbursts. She says she feels that she is out of options for getting his behavior under control and, as a result, she is similarly situated to the mothers of the boys who shot dozens of people in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Sandy Hook. And, although she changed her son’s first name in the article, she published it under her full name and included a recent photograph of her son.
I hated the article. Not because I don’t sympathize with the mother but because I also, and more primarily, sympathize with her child. Even though I never, even at my worst, would have intentionally harmed another person, my mother could have written many of the same things about my behavior when I was around that age. Although actual violence is very rare among people with psychiatric disabilities, the sorts of behaviors that are described in this article – impulsive threats, verbal aggression (e.g., cursing at parents), fights with peers, and a tendency to try to escape, hit, or kick when approached or restrained during a meltdown – are not uncommon among kids with disabilities that affect impulse control, communication, and emotional regulation. As a friend of mine discussed in more detail in her blog post, “I Was One of the Scary Kids,” these kids are still unlikely to deliberately hurt others or engage in premeditated aggression, and their behavior often substantially improves by the time they reach adulthood as they gain the ability to escape from stressful situations.
As I read the article, I couldn’t help but imagine how I would feel if my mother had written something similar about me, documenting her impressions of my worst moments and comparing me to someone who had only recently killed 30 people, when I was only 13 years old. To know that that article was being shared among everyone I knew, including teachers, schoolmates, and extended family. To know that that article, attached to my mother’s full name and my photograph, would likely still be on the Internet years later, when I was applying to college or for jobs. At that age, I had a hard enough time forgiving or understanding my mother when she forced me to get off of the phone and do my homework (I had only two friends and they were the most important things in my life), and that’s the sort of thing that 13-year-olds have some hope of understanding. How can any 13-year-old, let alone one with mental health issues, “understand” why his mother felt the need to tell the entire world that he is a potential mass murderer and that she’s run out of ideas of what to do about him?
Children with known psychiatric disabilities, especially those who also are seen as having persistent behavioral problems, already get typecast as potential killers despite the fact that there is no useful profile of school shooters and, as of 2009, most school shootings were by people with no history of mental health evaluation and no history of disruptive conduct at school. This typecasting leads to bullying at school, social isolation, and harassment by school administrators. This sort of treatment is not okay, even or even especially when the child actually has serious behavioral problems. How much worse must it be for the child discussed in this article, now that those perceptions have been reinforced, in a highly dramatic and public manner, by one’s own mother?
I would like to think I turned out really pretty well in the long run. I know what I have to do in stressful situations in order to keep myself calm and safe. I get angry a lot, but I’ve found ways to channel it into productive behavior (as I tell my friends, I’ve considered writing a motivational self-help book on how to succeed in stressful and competitive environments, which I plan to call “Do It For Spite”). I graduated high school, college, and law school. I’m now at a point in my life and my career where I have enough of a “track record” showing me to be a competent and non-homicidal person that I can admit to having a disability and having had emotional and impulse control issues in high school.
I’m not sure if I would have been able to do any of those things if my mother had, under her real name and using my photograph, written about my very worst moments in a very public way, and speculated without reasonable basis that I might someday kill people, when I was only 13 years old and still struggling.
Kids with disabilities and their parents absolutely need support, both in the form of services and the sympathetic ear of others who’ve been there. But parents are not entitled to do things that harm their children in order to get that support. Unlike their children, parents of kids with disabilities are adults, and with that comes privileges and responsibilities their children do not yet have. Parents are far more powerful, both at home and in the public forum, than their minor children (what are the odds that a thirteen-year-old’s complaints about his mother’s unpredictable temper would have gone viral, even though it’s far more terrifying to live with a parent with emotional control issues than with a child?). Thirteen-year-olds aren’t supposed to be good at thinking about their future, but their parents are. Parents are responsible for their children’s lives, not the other way around.
As adults, parents need to consider the effect their public statements have on the long-term best interests of their children and others like their children. A 13-year-old child has the right to evolve and grow, and that right loses its meaning if there’s a dramatic narrative of the worst moments of their life at that age, published multiple places on the Internet, without meaningful protection of their anonymity. Parents also need to consider whether it’s worth saying things that perpetuate their child’s segregation and isolation from the community, in exchange for “better services.” Services help, but I’m not sure that any services help enough to outweigh the harm caused by encouraging people to see your child as a future murderer.