A year since Newtown – Has anything changed?

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Morning Zen Guest blogger ~ Lisa Lambert ~

December 14 will be the first anniversary of the Newtown school shootings that took the lives of 20 young children and 6 school staff. Adam Lanza also shot his mother, Nancy, and later shot himself. In the aftermath of those 28 deaths, intense conversations took place both publicly and privately about mental health, guns and prevention. We asked ourselves what went wrong and what needed to change so this wouldn’t happen again.

Twelve months later not much has changed.

Last December, many families whose children have mental health needs were optimistic that there would be a renewed focus and the will to take a hard look at the children’s mental health “system.” Those of us who use it, work in it or navigate it realized while there might not be a wholesale fix, even some patching up could make an impact. Many of us told our stories and shared our worries in an effort to keep this important discussion on the front burner. We were hopeful. Finally mental health, especially children’s mental health, was getting the attention it needed.

The early reports about Adam Lanza and his mother, Nancy, highlighted his bizarre behavior and isolation and their slow drift into accepting these things as the new normal. Those reports sounded a lot like the personal stories many families tell when they call my organization for help as well as the story of my own son. When he was younger, I watched him become wildly enraged at trivial slights and fearful of ordinary things. Once in a movie theater he ran screaming to the lobby because an adult character became out of control which mirrored the way he was feeling. We all hoped these stories would point out his dire needs and our own.

Instead, the conversation about mental health and children has focused on training teachers, creating a registry of people who have been hospitalized and of course, guns. There is new funding and education programs for teachers and other school employees to recognize the signs of “mental illness.” While it’s always a welcome idea to invest more money into children’s mental health, most parents will tell you that they notice something worrisome going on with their child long before the teacher does. But there’s no funding to teach parents the same skills and facts and no recognition that we can be valuable “first responders,” even though most parents are pretty expert about their children. Not much has changed.

While there is a deep divide in this country over gun control, there is also a growing awareness around the need for mental health screening and treatment for children and teens. For the first time, the top 5 out of 6 chronic health issues facing children are mental health problems rather than physical problems such as asthma.1  We know that 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses begin before the age of 14 and 75% before the age of 24. Many would say that makes them childhood illnesses.

Yet, we continue to talk almost exclusively about guns. Wherever you land on the gun debate, it won’t help the children and families who need treatment. Violence prevention is not mental health treatment.

Last month the state of Connecticut released a report on its investigation of the Newtown shootings and concluded that Adam Lanza “had significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others, even those to whom he should have been close.”  The report included a detailed list of Adam Lanza’s activities from the video games he played to the black garbage bags he placed over his windows. It outlined Nancy Lanza’s mistaken attempts to create closeness, such as taking him to a shooting range. It left unanswered the questions, “Why?” and “How can we stop this from happening again?”

Many rushed to judge and blame Nancy Lanza. She should have tried harder or made different choices. She was seen as part of the problem at best and the creator of a monster at worst. Most parents of children with mental health needs make mistakes, learn to accept bizarre behavior and tolerate things they never thought they would, all the while trying to find effective help. Like Nancy Lanza, we are almost always blamed. We are told that we are the ones that failed, not that a mental health system in need of repair failed us. We have the highest divorce rate, are most likely to lose our jobs and have the highest out of pocket expenses. The impact on our families is brutal and still we are judged. Not much has changed. 

When Nelba Marquez Green, whose 6 year old daughter, Ana, was killed by Adam Lanza was recently asked how she felt about Nancy Lanza she said, “"She's a victim herself. And it's time in America that we start looking at mental illness with compassion, and helping people who need it."

"This was a family that needed help, an individual that needed help and didn't get it. And what better can come of this, of this time in America, than if we can get help to people who really need it?"

The families of the children killed at Sandy Hook school have launched a national “Parent Together” campaign that seeks to roll out prevention programs and  create a conversation which focuses on mental wellness, community connectedness and gun safety. They want to encourage all of us to put children first. 

Maybe we still have that chance to change things within our grasp. If we do, let’s not lose it. 

Citation: 1. Slomski, A. “Chronic Mental Health Issues in Children Now Loom Larger than Physical Problems.” JAMA 2012; 308(3):223-5\

lisaLisa Lambert is the executive director of Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL) and a Children's Mental Health Network Advisory Council member. Lisa Lambert became involved in children’s mental health as an advocate for her young son in 1989 through the CASSP family network in California. After moving back to Massachusetts, she began supporting families whose children and youth had behavioral health needs. Her areas of expertise include mental health policy, systems advocacy and family-driven research.

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Teri Toothman's avatar

Teri Toothman

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I read this and I think of how many time we as advocates would say it is going to take a tragedy in order for the children's mental health system to change to be proactive instead of reactive. Unfortunately we have witnessed many tragedies recently but still the system stays the same. I ask what will it take to bring about the necessary changes to a broken system

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