December 21, 2012

Family Voices Calls for More Support for Youth with Mental Illness in the Wake of the Newtown Shooting

Family Voices Calls for More Support for Youth with Mental Illness in the Wake of the Newtown Shooting

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The national dialogue in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting tragedy has been largely about policy regarding assault rifles and gun control. Certainly, these serious and important issues need to be addressed.

However, Family Voices hopes that after we each handle our grief and fear related to this horrifying event, our distress will immediately prompt a critically important dialogue of how families are supported around issues of mental illness.

For more than twenty years Family Voices has provided information, resources, and support for family-led organizations all around the country, like the 51 Family-to-Family Health Information Centers (one in each state and the District of Columbia), that offer help within their communities for families of children with special health care needs of all kinds, including mental illness. For the sake of definition - special health care needs and disabilities are not just physical and developmental: they are also mental and emotional.

When a child has mental health challenges, the impact on that child, the family, the community, and society can clearly be just as devastating as the impact of a physical disability - and just as costly psychologically, as well as economically. Family Voices stands behind the principle that all children and youth with special health care concerns, whatever they happen to be, need appropriate services within their families and communities. There is so much blame, stigma, and shame around mental illness - as if, unlike a physical disability, mental illness is someone's "fault," perhaps the parent's, and therefore not something for which the community at large should be responsible.

In All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten author Robert Fulghum says that one kindergarten teaching is:

"When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together."

When everyone holds hands and sticks together, why would we leave our children with mental health issues behind?

President Obama underscored the importance of our whole nation taking care of each and every child in his memorial speech in Newtown on December 16:

"... this job of keeping our children safe... is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community, and the help of a nation... we bear a responsibility for every child ...we're all parents...they're all our children....This is our first task -- caring for our children....If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged

In his Huffington Post article of December 17, child Psychologist Dr. Harold Koplewicz says:

"We know that when we see someone suffering, we shouldn't look away. And when we see young people coughing, wheezing or bleeding, we insist that they get attention. But when we see young people with disturbing behavior, or young people in clear emotional distress, we ignore them and hope these problems will go away."

Family Voices Executive Director Lynn Pedraza echoed these sentiments:

"As an adoptive mom who knowingly adopted older children with behavior problems that later manifested as mental health issues, I know what it is like to live with children who struggle with these types of challenges. I well remember reaching out for support when some of my kids had severe problems, and even became violent. Often I had trouble getting the timely help I needed and it was frightening. I look forward to a time when this nation will practice good prevention and early intervention with wraparound family-centered and youth-led assistance for families as a common practice. This will give us a true opportunity to change the trajectory early on of many of the lives of children who live with mental health issues. Assistance of this type would include the medical, social, emotional, and physical resources, as well as skill development necessary, to support each child's needs, whatever they are. Like education, I believe that violence is a public health issue and we must work from that perspective to create change."

Koplewicz also said:

"The first signs of 75 percent of all psychiatric disorders appear by the age of 24. We need to be on the lookout for signs of distress in young people to get them help as soon as possible. Research shows that early intervention improves the outlook for anyone with a psychiatric disorder -- and drastically reduces the likelihood of violence.

As a nation, we need to change our attitude about mental illness. We need a better plan for giving mental health care parity with other medical care. Improving access to the best evidence-based interventions should be a national priority. The economic cost as well as the human cost of untreated mental illness makes that clear. "

Experts at the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law agree that the Newtown shooting highlights the need for more mental health services:

"The real problem is that community based services - including mobile crisis services, assertive community treatment, peer supports, and supportive housing - are in short supply... resulting in mental health crises that could otherwise be prevented. A stronger commitment to vital community mental health services is long overdue and must be paired with improved gun laws in order to prevent future tragedies."

After the Newtown shooting Liza Long, the mother of a mentally troubled 13-year old, shared her challenges getting help for her son in a controversial post on her blog "The Anarchist Soccer Mom":

"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.'

Long went on to say:

"No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, ‘Something must be done.'

 I agree that something must be done. It's time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That's the only way our nation can ever truly heal."

It is possible that Adam Lanza, the 20-year old gunman in Newtown, had received a diagnosis of Asperger's, which is one form of autism. This has stimulated discussion about whether Asperger's and autism will somehow be linked in people's minds with violence. The Autism Society said:

"There is absolutely no evidence or any reliable research that suggests a linkage between autism and planned violence. To imply or suggest that some linkage exists is wrong and is harmful to more than 1.5 million law abiding, non-violent, and wonderful individuals who live with autism each day."

And Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer at the nonprofit advocacy group Autism Speaks and a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill commented:

"Whenever there is a horrible tragedy like this one, people want to make sense out of it and they're trying to look for answers... if this individual did have Asperger's or autism, which we don't know [for sure] that he did, this is not going to help us understand what happened. Because there really is no link between the two."

Pedraza of Family Voices concluded:

"In fact, it's more typical for individuals with diagnoses in the autism spectrum to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violence. Hypotheses linking autism and Asperger's to planned violence have the potential to do tremendous harm to children and youth who live with autism, as well as to our society as a whole. People with autism have the same needs for love, acceptance, community, and family that we all have - and often suffer from isolation and misunderstanding.

Instead of trying to place blame, we hope our nation will use this terrible event as an opportunity to look at what we already know works to support families of children with special health care needs of all kinds, including those with mental health issues. These solutions include more mental health services, as well as family-led mentoring and peer support, such as that which is provided at the 51 Family-to-Family Health Information Centers around the United States."

For More Information Please Contact Melanie Rubin, Family Voices Director of Communications, 505-872-4777,