Parent View: Adam Lanza’s Mother Would Have No Better Help Today

Flowers, candles and stuffed animals make up a makeshift memorial in Newtown, Conn., days after the 2012 shooting. (Reuters/Landov)

Flowers, candles and stuffed animals make up a makeshift memorial in Newtown, Conn., days after the 2012 shooting. (Reuters/Landov)

Soon after the Newtown shooting, a viral blog post titled “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” captured one mother’s anguish over having a mentally ill and violent child. Lisa Lambert, the executive director of the Parent/Professional Advocacy League — subtitled “The Massachusetts Family Voice For Children’s Mental Health” — responded by eloquently describing the public silence that usually prevails among such parents in the face of widespread stigma and hostility, and the damage it does. Her post was titled Parents of Mentally Ill Children: ‘We Don’t Tell You And Here’s Why.

Today, a year after the shooting, NPR reports that promises to fix the mental health system after Newtown remain unfilfilled. And USA Today reporter Liz Szabo tweeted from Capitol Hill this week: “Mental health reform struggles to get attention. Rep. Tim Murphy announced major bill. Almost no one showed up.”

Here, Lisa Lambert looks at the effects of the Newtown shooting — and the lack thereof — on children with mental illness and their families, one year later.

By Lisa Lambert
Guest contributor

Dec. 14 will be the first anniversary of the Newtown school shootings that took the lives of 20 young children and six 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 that 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 theatre, 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 are 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. For parents, 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 five out of six chronic health issues facing children are mental health problems rather than physical problems such as asthma. We know that 50 percent of all lifetime mental illnesses begin before the age of 14 and 75 percent before the age of 24. Many would say that makes them childhood illnesses.

Wherever you land on the gun debate, it won’t help the children and families who need treatment.

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.

Lisa Lambert of PPAL (Courtesy)

Lisa Lambert of PPAL (Courtesy)

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.

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  • breedum

    Nancy Lanza was killed first to save her the embarrassment (see Ex-Marine Charles Joseph Whitman). She was a good mother that did her best to raise her child. Nothing could have stopped this terror once Lanza decided to take these lives.. He chose Sandy Hook because it was familiar. He killed the kids for the shock factor. Adam Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger’s, OCD, and a social disorder. Asperger’s is not a mental condition but is on the autism spectrum. OCD and a social disorder hardly qualify anyone as a serious mental patient. Adam Lanza planned out the entire massacre with a sound mind. Proof exists with the spreadsheets detailing many mass murderers, their choice of weapons, and the number of kills. His window were blotted out and the contractors made to be quiet because of sensory overloads. Sensory overloads are common with both Asperger’s and OCD. Millions of us struggle just fine and peacefully. Social disorders hardly qualify for anything beyond a mild sedative to ease anxiety. Lanza studied these murderers for more than 2 years, more proof of a sound mind. No laws nor any mental Dr’s would have stopped this tragedy.

    I can relate to Adam Lanza due to having been diagnosed with 3 of the same issues. I actually have 3 more diagnosis on top of Lanza’s. Lanza and I have much in common as far as the social issues and the Asperger’s, and I have also studied mass murderers for many years. The differences are, I researched into the why and have no fascination with the killings.

    Lanza carved out his own style, and much like James Holmes, the number of bodies was just as important as the shock value. He figured if he made it through 2 classrooms, his body count would be the highest. However, thankfully, many of these kids fled out of classrooms 9 and 10 as the shooting began. Lanza also felt like the community would forgive him in the end (see Lanza reading of Amish Grace). We should never forgive nor ever forget.

  • cindy g.

    I cannot understand how Adam’s mother kept all those guns and ammunition in her house when she knew that her son was mentally ill. There is no excuse for it. If she feared her son enough that she felt the need for ONE gun for self-defense, then it should have been kept in a secret and locked place. I am sorry that she is dead, but I don’t see any conclusion other than that she brought it upon herself, and I agree with another comment which said that she had blood on her hands, all those little children and their caretakers. It was the access to guns; especially assault weapons, that caused this massacre. Adam could not have hurt near as many people with knives, or even one pistol with a couple of bullets. It is a national disgrace and Wayne LaPiere and his cohorts have blood on their hands every time this happens. No one needs assault weapons and I cannot understand Mrs. Lanza’s actions especially given her son’s illness.

    • Nikki

      She was a prepper…

  • Kay Weeks

    Folks, you’re wrong. Adam’s so-called mental health conditions did not cause him to go on that shooting rampage targeting small children. I myself have been diagnosed with a few so-called mental health conditions too that I’m NOT being medicated for. (The meds make me even worse.) But I’m harmless. Unlike Adam, I was not taught target shooting soon after I got out of diapers. And unlike Adam, I was not allowed to spend countless hours upon hours on end playing violent videogames such as Call of Duty or the School Shooting game.

  • Kem333

    She did not seem to be looking for help. Her son had a list of all the worst mass killings of all time on his bedroom wall, and she was taking him shooting. There is blood on her hands. She could have prevented this entire thing if she had kept those guns where her disturbed son couldn’t get them.

    Obviously he had mental health issues, but a crazy person by himself isn’t dangerous. A crazy person with a gun however….

  • Ty

    Mrs Lanza was a victim to be sure, but our whole system of mental health care is systemically flawed. Coupled with the fact that most people don’t know their own neighbors or care about their well being shows that we have a larger societal problem. It takes a village is just as true today, but who cares? That’s someone else’s problem, let them deal with it. Focusing on guns in this case is absurd. A gun did not pull it’s own trigger, a screwed up kid did. Would you blame the knife if he had stabbed all of those kids? Until our mental health system is reformed and people start to care about one another again tragedies like this will persist.

  • Annette

    No question that the mental health system in this country is sorely lacking. We recently saw that again in the tragic case of VA congressman Creeds, who was unable to find a bed for his severely disturbed son. No doubt Lisa Lambert faced some of the same challenges. But who, in their right mind, with a disturbed and violent child, stocks their home with a virtual armory of assault weapons and teaches that child to shoot?

  • GreatNewYear

    What else did Nancy Lambert have to do everyday? She didn’t work for a living, she had no children’s activities to tend to, she didn’t have a husband to answer to, she didn’t even have to clean her own house. She had full health coverag. So what else did she have to do?

    So she had an adult child living with her with mental health issues.. And her solution was to take up shooting with him?

    This woman does not deserve sympathy… She lived a pampered life.

  • KPD

    Agreed, more funding, more beds, more access to treatment especially in the early years is what’s needed to address this crisis in our country. Without the much needed supports for the mentally ill, parents and caregivers are powerless to prevent situations like Sandy Hook. Currently trying to get help for your child when it is most urgently needed is extremely difficult at best.

  • Kailey

    Absolutely mental illness needs more attention and better funding in this country. Rep. Tim Murphy’s bill is NOT a solution. Here’s a few reasons why:

    From the National Disability Rights Network:

    “Representative Murphy’s legislation will reduce funding for the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness (PAIMI) program by about 85% leaving individuals with mental illness no independent advocates nationwide to help address the myriad of issues faced every day. In 2012, with funding that was not adequate to serve all the people that requested services, the PAIMI program provided individual advocacy services to over 10,800 people, trainings to almost 135,000 people, information to over 35,000 individuals, investigated the circumstances in the deaths of over 2,700 individuals with mental illness, and provided systemic advocacy that positively impacted the lives of millions of people in the United States. Individual cases involve instances of abuse and neglect, but as importantly involve examples where an individual’s rights have been violated, such as employment and housing discrimination and denial of health and education services.”

    From the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law:

    “This legislation would eliminate initiatives that promote recovery from serious mental illnesses through the use of evidence-based, voluntary, peer-run services and family supports,” said Daniel Fisher, M.D., Ph.D., a founder of the NCMHR. “These services have a proven track record in helping people stay out of the hospital and live successfully in the community. Because hospitalization is far more expensive and has far worse outcomes than these effective, and cost-efficient, community-based services, this bill would cost more money for worse outcomes.

    “Even worse,” Dr. Fisher added, “the bill greatly promotes stigma and discrimination by its unfounded and damaging connection between mental illness and violence.”

    NDRN, NCMHR and the Bazelon Center note that the bill does not represent the mainstream of national thought, practice and research.

    “This proposal targets the rights of individuals with mental illnesses and restructures federal funding to heavily encourage the use of force and coercion. It also would reduce privacy protections and rights advocacy,” said NDRN executive director Curt Decker.

    “Most troubling, this legislation threatens to essentially dismantle the efforts of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to promote recovery and community inclusion for the broad variety of people in our community – and to do so at a time when SAMHSA’s efforts to ensure that effective behavioral health approaches are fully integrated into public health are essential,” said Harvey Rosenthal, a Bazelon Center trustee.