Heartbreak and healing

A year after the Newtown tragedy, we should focus not on judgment or blame, but on helping parents of children with mental health issues

December 13, 2013 


In the throes of tragedy, humans instinctively search for answers. We employ this defense mechanism to alleviate anxiety and, with any hope, stifle scarier emotions like fear and despair. After all, if you're busy applying rational thought to a situation, you are less likely to be pummeled by grief.

On December 14, 2012, our nation was shaken by an act of unthinkable violence against the innocent children and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary. Over the past year, new details have emerged, as has the task of trying to make sense of it all. Our collective hope was that if we could understand the inner workings of Adam Lanza's mind, we could construct a formula to predict and prevent future carnage. Perhaps we could advance stringent guidelines for parents to follow so their children do not take this bleak path.

But, while there is legitimacy to the search for rules and warning signs, there are no guarantees. And the undeniable fact is that human behavior is not always logical.

After the tragedy, the blame game began. Much of it was focused on political issues like lax gun laws or inaccessibility of mental health care (as if the topic of health care has not divided our nation enough in recent months). But a heaping helping of the culpability was placed on the late Nancy Lanza, the first victim of Adam's killing spree.

Unfortunately, it is not a rare event to judge parents. It happens from the moment our children are born, whether the focus is a mother's decision to feed her child formula or nurse in public, evolving to topics like the school we select for our children or the activities in which they participate. How gratifying it is when we can convince ourselves that we have it all figured out; that our parenting decisions have been successful despite the absence of an owner's manual. Judgments are rampant when a child is well; they escalate into recriminations when a child becomes mentally ill or violent.

Certain truths are evident. The vast majority of children who break your heart have some form of treatable mental illness or substance use disorder. Once parents accept this principle, they need to find the right treatment team -- a particular problem in parts of the country where mental health professionals are scarce and over-taxed.

Liza Long's poignant piece, "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother," explores the predicament faced by the parents of severely mentally ill children. It becomes your life's mission to get your child well, and every corner of your existence becomes strained as a result. Your attempts may be futile, and it will have nothing to do with a lack of love or devotion. Your parenting may yield success with other children in your household, who are forced to cope with the unpredictability of their mentally ill sibling while facing their own woes like tennis tryouts or puberty.

When your child is a minor, you may be able to keep him in treatment, although he may not be an active participant. As he nears adulthood, his participation in his own care may become more and more precarious, as it is his legal right to refuse it. Parents can do all the right things and yet the sheer force of mental illness can outmaneuver the countering force of a doctor's prescription and the reach of a parent's love.

The issues often compound through the years. The burden of managing a troubled child often breaks relationships apart. Single moms and dads are exposed emotionally and financially. Family and friends may try to help but many of these parents become isolated. How many can relate to the agonizing decision to forcibly hospitalize your child? Or to the impossible task of calling the authorities on your own kin, terrified of how his behavior might spiral with daunting strangers present?

Criticize Nancy Lanza for bringing guns into her home -- we do. Mental illness and lethal weapons should never mix. But don't default to the assumption that she was a negligent parent. We must remember that behind every child who struggles is a tortured parent attempting to help that child, maintain their own sanity, and mourn the loss of the child's "normalcy."

With the anniversary of Newtown and the nation still divided on how to respond, these broken-hearted parents need our help, not our judgment.

Joel L. Young, M.D. is a forensic psychiatrist and medical director of the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine near Detroit, and teaches psychiatry at Wayne State University School of Medicine. He is the author of "When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart" (Globe Pequot Press).

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