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Peter Lanza Breaks His Silence

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(March 13, 2014) The father of Adam Lanza, who killed 28 people, including himself, his mother, school workers and elementary school children in December 2012, broke his silence this past week. Peter Lanza spoke with Andrew Solomon of the New Yorker about his son, the tragedy he committed at Sandy Hook Elementary School and about the aftermath of that gruesome day (“The Reckoning,” March 17).

peter_lanzaThe interviews with Solomon, which were Peter Lanza’s first about his son, took on the many questions about whether the event could have been prevented or predicted, the need for mental health or gun reform and speculation about Adam’s motive. But, Solomon wrote, “Peter Lanza came to [those] conversations as much to ask questions as to answer them. It’s strange to live in a state of sustained incomprehension about what has become the most important fact about you.”

Perhaps most compelling was the perspective Solomon’s story provided towards the human impact not only on Adam Lanza’s victims, but on those who loved him. “I’m not dealing with it,” Lanza told Solomon. “You can’t mourn for the little boy he once was. You can’t fool yourself.” Lanza also said he was surprised by a victim’s relative saying that they had forgiven Adam, a position he still struggles with. “I didn’t even know how to respond,” he said. In spite of the sorrow he felt about the lives lost at the hands of his son, and about this new reality and visibility, Lanza decided to share his story to help the families of those who Adam killed, and maybe contribute towards preventing another such event.

Although it is unclear whether Adam suffered from psychosis – there is no evidence that he did, Peter said he had suspicions of schizophrenia at times – the Lanzas’ story is unfortunately all too familiar to some families with loved ones who have acted violently on psychotic thoughts with tragic consequences.

The notoriety that emerges from raising someone who has perpetrated such acts is obviously unwelcome, but also masks another tragedy: the failure to find answers about why and how so many lives could be ruined by what seem to be mysterious forces. And these failures occur at the hands of our larger communities, not just the families who struggle to find the right path.

When reflecting on Sandy Hook, we must challenge ourselves to ask: can we find compassion for those who struggled to find answers to the many other questions the Lanzas faced while raising Adam? And can we challenge ourselves to find some compassion for others like Adam Lanza?

“I want people to be afraid of the fact that this could happen to them,” Peter Lanza told Solomon. “It’s real,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be understood to be real.”

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“To Leave People in Psychosis on the Streets is Unconscionable”

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(March 12, 2014) When Matthew Hoff turned 18 he was free to make his own medical decisions, including discontinuing treatment for his bipolar disorder and other mental health problems. His parents tried unsuccessfully to get him back into treatment, but he wasn’t considered dangerous or gravely disabled enough.

jen_hoff"We worked hard to keep him safe. But then he turned 18 and we couldn't keep him safe anymore . . . It’s like watching your kid drown slowly," Matthew's mother, Jennifer Hoff, told the Los Angeles Times (“Kelly Thomas case prompts counties to take fresh look at Laura’s Law,” March 9).

Less than four months after turning 18, Matthew was arrested for the first time, entering a cycle of homelessness, incarceration, hospitalization, release and re-arrest. Matthew’s fourth encounter with the law occurred mere weeks after being released from a residential treatment facility for mentally ill teens; he walked into a bank and demanded $1,000 on a sticky note.

Now he is serving fifteen years in prison, much of which he spends in isolation. Hoff believes that Laura’s Law could have prevented her son’s deterioration by allowing court-ordered outpatient treatment to help him stay compliant with his treatment plan and stop him from cycling between hospitals and jails.

But it has been 12 years since California passed assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) and only Nevada County has fully implemented the law. Advocates and families like the Hoffs are pushing for expansion, saying that the law would reduce the number of people with severe mental illness who are incarcerated or homeless.

"It's hard for me to understand that anybody questions the value of it," Brian Jacobs, whose siblings suffer from schizophrenia, told the Times. "It's a horrible, horrible illness, and to leave people in psychosis on the streets is unconscionable, but we do it all the time."

Last year, California officials clarified that counties can use money from the Mental Health Services Act to fund the law, undercutting an oft-cited reason for not bringing the law to every county.

Now the rest of California needs to follow Nevada County’s example to protect people like Matthew Hoff and countless others like him.

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Parents Wonder About their Childrens' First Day Behind Bars

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(March 11, 2014) There are too many parents with gut-wrenching stories like the ones these two anonymous parents are telling.

prison_daughter“I remember my son’s first day of kindergarten like it was yesterday. The angst I felt when dropping him off and watching that timid little boy walk to the front door,” writes the mother of a son with mental illness in a letter author Pete Earley published on his blog (“Frustrated mother describes her psychotic son’s first day in prison”).

“Tears from the realization that my ‘baby’ was growing up and would eventually have to face this harsh world without me," she writes. "Worrying about whether or not he would be treated with kindness by the other children in his morning kindergarten class.”

These are memories that every parent can identify with. But too many parents can also identify with the experience of a son or daughter’s first day behind bars.

“Tuesday was my mentally ill son’s first day in the prison unit he’s been assigned to,” Earley’s letter writer continues. “The intensity of this particular angst, the depth of the sorrow in my tears, and the heart-wrenching worry over how he will be treated by the guards and inmates is unlike anything I’ve ever felt in my life.”

And from another parent in another publication. “My daughter sleeps in jail tonight, not because she is a criminal, but because the voices told her to do something that was,” begins a father’s story in Daily Kos (“My daughter sleeps in jail tonight: How mental health treatment fails America’s youth,” Feb. 19).

“Instinctively, I stop at her bedroom door and look in at the stuffed animals left untouched on her pillowed bedspread. I try to accept the fact that tonight, my precious baby girl will rest her head on a cold and dirty mattress in a jail.”

Parents will continue marking first days like this until America stops incarcerating its young people with severe mental illness and starts giving them timely and effective treatment before they commit crimes.

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A Dramatic Year Produces Modest Reforms in Virginia

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(March 10, 2014) Following the Deeds tragedy, Virginia lawmakers appeared eager to enact mental health reform to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future. But the General Assembly adjourned last week leaving more substantial reforms unaddressed (“Mental-health advocates fear fundamental problems in Virginia have been left to fester,” the Washington Post, March 9).

hospital-bed-genericIt can’t be ignored that lawmakers certainly made modest changes to address the circumstances that occurred late last fall when Senator Deeds’ son attacked his father before taking his own life. The legislature voted to give emergency clinicians more time to find a psychiatric bed and passed legislation compelling the state to maintain an online real-time registry of available beds, which went live this week.

The work in Virginia is far from complete. Virginia needs more hospital beds, clarification of its assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) law and broader inpatient criteria so that the state can effectively treat individuals in need before another tragedy. 

Now that the legislative session is over, we hope that the determination to help families like the Deeds’ continues and future tragedies will be prevented with the passage of meaningful reform.

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A Sister Reflects on Her Brother’s Lost Life

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(March 7, 2014) Margie Warrell shares her sorrow over her brother Peter’s passing and calls on all of us to view individuals with severe mental illness as the vulnerable human beings they are in a heartfelt opinion piece (“Mental Illness: Extend Compassion, Not Judgment,” Forbes, Mar. 2).

familyIn the heartfelt opinion piece, Warrell describes her brother, Peter, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and spent ten years with his illness before taking his life. A once talented athlete with a vibrant wit, Peter became overweight and was tormented by shame of his illness, withdrawing from seeing old friends.

“When Peter took his life . . . it was because he had given up any hope that life would ever get better,” Warrell writes. “While none of us liked to admit it, we all had.”

Warrell says she wishes that instead of judgment, people would extend compassion to individuals with mental illnesses and that they would recognize the heartache they and those who love them endure.

“Next time you hear of an innocent person who is murdered by someone with a mental illness, I would love you to think about the perpetuator not as the brutal heartless villain, but as a victim also,” Warrel requests of her audience.

We echo this plea. Psychosis is a terrible state of twisted reality that truly creates a prison within one’s own mind. It is inhumane that society often views mental illness as a reflection of someone’s character, or as a choice.

Unfortunately, the stigma associated with severe mental illness is made worse by acts of violence related to it. It is our job as a society to act in ways that protect those among us suffering frailty of mind, and to take collective responsibility when they lack treatment or moral support from their communities.

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