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Parents Of Mentally Ill Children: ‘We Don’t Tell You And Here’s Why’

In the wake of the Newtown shooting, a blog post titled “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” went viral. It captured one mother’s anguish over having a mentally ill and violent child, and WBUR’s Martha Bebinger reported further on the topic in this powerful piece: Newtown shooting raises fears among parents of troubled children.

Below, Lisa Lambert, the executive director of the Parent/Professional Advocacy League — subtitled “The Massachusetts Family Voice For Children’s Mental Health” — eloquently describes the public silence that usually prevails among those parents in the face of widespread stigma and hostility, and the damage it does.

By Lisa Lambert
Guest contributor

Lisa Lambert of PPAL

Lisa Lambert of PPAL

The best way to get help for your child with mental health issues is to talk about what’s going on. But most of us don’t, especially not at first. Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy, was reportedly quiet about his problems. She was happy to talk about gardening, the Red Sox and her hobbies. But she was quiet (publicly at least) about her son. I have been, too. We learn to be.

Even among parents who have kids with mental health problems, many cringe at the idea of exposure. Liza Long’s stunning post,” I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”, has prompted many parents to worry that she has exposed her 13 year old son to public scrutiny and taken a terrible risk. Other parents pour out their own stories, feeling the risk is nothing compared to the pain of dealing with mental illness all alone. I have been both kinds of parents – the one who keeps quiet and the one who shares her child’s story.

When my son was in elementary school, he was sometimes violent, explosive and unpredictable. His mind, his focus and his mood would shift and nothing could interrupt the explosion. Believe me, I tried. All I could do was send his younger brother to his “safe spot” and manage things the best I could. For reasons none of us understood, his brother was often the target. I worried for years that I would get a call that the state had removed my younger son because his older brother broke his arm or hurt him grievously. I went to all the best experts who speculated that maybe he was angry because his brother was “normal.” Why then, did he attack me too? And why did he also harm himself?

No one was ever sure about the why of it and we learned to live with the mystery and uncertainty. When he was a little older, my son was able to tell me that every day he woke up feeling emotional pain and most days it was simply horrible. When he exploded or when he hurt himself, it was like bursting a balloon, he said. The pain went away for a while. As he grew older, he hurt himself more and others less. He reasoned that it was morally a better thing to do. As his mother, I was still anguished.

When this first began, I told other mothers about it. They were the parents of his friends and had known him since he was a baby. Some of them would try to make me feel better. “All brothers fight” they’d say, “Yours are just more intense.” Some would look at me with horror or, worse yet, tell me to try things that I’d done long ago and found pretty worthless. It was clear that they thought it was either my skills or persistence that needed shoring up. I learned to avoid these discussions and got pretty good at deflecting questions. I learned to be quiet. Continue reading