On Adam Lanza, Liza Long, and the Real Impact of Mental Illness

The Newtown shooting stirs up a lot of thoughts in all of us, and I won’t start any discussion of what happened without asking for a moment to remember those who lost their lives last Friday.

Seriously, take a moment of reflection.

When something like this happens, the issue everyone jumps on is gun control. And I’m just as guilty of that as anyone; I spent much of my time on Twitter last Friday calling for the beginnings of a discussion on gun control.

I don’t have a particular agenda; I’m just bothered that, after events like this, everyone says that “now is not the time for a discussion on gun control,” and after waiting for “the right time,” the discussion never happens.

But this isn’t about gun control. This is about a much, MUCH less-often talked about issue: mental health.

The Anarchist Soccer Mom, Liza Long

This morning, a friend of mine posted this touching yet scary Gawker piece, written by one Liza Long, (edit: it was originally posted on her blog, and is now titled Thinking the Unthinkable) who discusses her difficult times dealing with a child with mental illness. The most frustrating part about the piece is the utter lack of support she gets from the system that is supposed to help with these problems.

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.” I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise—in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population. With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill—Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.

Is sending these people to prison really our best option? Our smartest option? The prison-industrial complex (no joke, this exists – prisons are a private industry) is not supposed to fix people; it’s supposed to separate people from society when the chances of rehabilitation are so low that the best option is incarceration. We use it as a punishment mechanism for moralistic reasons without much consideration of what we’re trying to accomplish by throwing people in prison. This is a widespread problem, the fetish for punishment over rehab, and it shows itself in a number of areas.

And it’s this moralizing of punishment and attribution of problems to individual failings that makes solving the problems of crime and mental illness difficult in our society. I was appalled, quite frankly, that one writer’s response to the Gawker piece was to expose the “truth” behind Liza Long, as seen through her blog.

Her blog tells a different story. Long has written a series of vindictive and cruel posts about her children in which she fantasizes about beating them, locking them up and giving them away. In most posts, her allegedly insane and violent son is portrayed as a normal boy who incites her wrath by being messy, buying too many Apple products and supporting Obama.

Sarah Kendzior

Before listing a series of somewhat outrageous quotes from the writer’s blog, she does try to move towards the mental health of the mother: “This ‘national conversation’ on mental illness needs to include the mental illness of mothers and the online privacy of their children.”

And that’s true enough, as it is, but the shaming of a woman who likely has an untreated mental illness for sharing her personal demons in public does little to advance the conversation and perpetuates the feelings that prevent people from seeking help for their problems.

The only way we’re going to be able to build support for providing services to those with mental illness is to stop making people feel like their illnesses are their own fault, that they’re bad people for having those illnesses, and that people won’t accept them as they are, illnesses and all. This rundown of all the bad thoughts this mother has had doesn’t help.

And the “media tour” excuse is total (excuse my language) bullshit; she wrote what is effectively a “letter to the editor” on her personal blog; she has not gone on the talk show circuit, and acting like that’s the reason for this is thin justification for making someone feel bad for themselves. No one is exploiting anyone for media attention, she’s trying to draw attention to issues in our society that we’re not doing a good job of addressing.

That’s not to say that everything about the original piece is great. The Frisky has a great roundup of some of those criticisms, between public writing about the child that will follow them everywhere, the sensationalism of the original piece, and the difficulty in drawing a comparison between “Michael” and Adam when so little is known, but ultimately, the importance of drawing attention to our social response to mental illness, in my mind, far outweighs those concerns.

We could be doing a better job with our approach to mental illness, as a society and as individuals, and reading through some of the comments on the original Gawker piece pains me, as it shows such a misunderstanding of the nature of mental illness. I just hope this adds to the conversation.

Update: Just saw that Sarah and Liza issued a joint statement on Sarah’s blog.  While I’m glad they’re able to reconcile their differences and focus on important aspects of the conversation, I still don’t think that she addressed the negative side-effects of what her post said.

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