What Adam Lanza Tells us about Mental Illness

I’m not going to talk about the actual story of the tragic killing of 26 in Connecticut on Friday. It is hard to write about, and I believe most people know the story well enough already.

I don’t know if Adam Lanza was mentally ill. It seems probable, but all the speculation about what he might have been seem, well, counter-productive, to say the least. The media’s endless pontificating about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc, is harmful not just because it stigmatizes mental illness. It distracts us from the root causes of it in what is by any way you look at it a profoundly sick and alienated society.

Similar to our obsession with serial killers, the random outbursts of people with, for example, schizophrenia (a word which almost no one, I think, has any idea what it really means) form part of a comforting narrative that the causes of random violence and inhumanity lie external to the fundamental workings of a capitalist society, in some sort of weird fucked-up-ness that cannot be explained, though it is perversely fascinating.

I write this because, as happens with these things, the perception of Adam Lanza, who he was and why he did what he did, become much more important than who he actually was and why he did what he did. As with Columbine, as with Virginia Tech, the events and the killers become a sort of mirror on which we project the things lurking in our collective neuroses: Judeo-Christian morals, mental illness, gun control, the nuclear family and so on.

As a case in point, we have the article by “Anarchist Soccer Mom” and the various responses to it: here and here.

Now, the article is by a mother whose son clearly has some kind of mental disorder that causes outbursts of random and violent behavior toward his mother and other loved ones. “The girl who was thursday” complains that this stigmatizes the mentally ill by not giving her son’s unique perspective, and goes on to insinuate that she collaborates with psychiatrists in mistreating her son through the prescription of antipsychotics which can be counter-indicated for young people.

This seems to me to be fairly typical of the sentiment thrown up by the sketchier edges of the disability movement. The assumption here is, and it is one we need to keep in mind, that the mentally ill are not just ciphers for “treatment” and normalization – they have their own unique views which do not match those of society in general, and may not need treatment, in fact, psychiatric treatment may be harmful. When united with the idea that the mentally ill are far more often victims of violence than its perpetrators, which is perfectly correct of course these two reasonable assumptions can turn into something toxic.

The problem with this view is that mental disorders often do indicate violent behavior, especially toward loved ones. I don’t know what disorder “Anarchist soccer mom’s” son might have. But I do know that even for young people with bipolar disorder, violent behavior is, while not common, certainly not unheard of. People who are known to myself and my family have had experience with the same behavior she describes of her son: threats to kill oneself and others, attempts to make good on these (by, for example, picking up a knife) at which point they have to resort to very similar emergency protocols, locking their child downstairs, evacuating the house or taking them to an ER.

Pretending that this doesn’t happen is wishful thinking. It doesn’t help the mentally ill at all to assume that they are not – well, ill. Nor does it help at all those who have to deal with that illness. In the capitalist United States which never really had a welfare state to speak of, and the social safety net of which is rapidly being shredded to the glee of both major political parties, this is their families first, last and always.

It’s actually kind of sad that I should have to demonstrate that mental illness is an illness rather than a unique and even desirable or romantic viewpoint on the world. It strikes me as bizarre, not to say incredibly condescending, for someone to say that the incredibly dark moods I enter into as a result of my brain chemistry is “romantic” in some way, or that it is “romantic” that I find it nearly impossible to relate to even those closest to me, or carry on a basic conversation.

So is it unreasonable that “anarchist soccer mom” is afraid of her son? I don’t think so. I would be afraid for her if she wasn’t. Will her son massacre random strangers some day, as did Adam Lanza? Probably not. But the same neglect our society shows toward her and her son is what unleashes the Adam Lanzas, the Seung-Hui Chos, the Eric Harrises and Dylan Kliebolds on the world. In our society, while the greatest purveyors of violence are our own government and ruling class, it is always the ordinary people who will pay the price for their neglect.

When I read her post, I couldn’t help thinking of my own mother. She is probably the smartest, strongest, and most caring person I know. Over the past eight years, she battled against the great adversity emerging out of a very bitter divorce to earn enough money through a poorly-rewarded freelance writing career for herself and her two sons, to feed, clothe and educate them. Her two sons both happened to have what is called major depressive disorder, one of them being much worse than the other.

Tears come to my eyes when I think of all she went through to try and fix what was wrong with my brother, and to a lesser extent myself and my uncle, who moved in with us a month before I went to college. She had no help from anyone in dealing with a high school student whose addled brain chemistry would simply not allow him to get out of bed. I don’t want to reveal too many details, but when the school authorities blame you as a parent for your child’s truancy and failing grades, well…

I thank the nonexistent deity that my brother and I have not threatened to harm others or ourselves (well, most of the time). It is hard enough dealing with depression.

I’m not sure how to respond to the second article from Jezebel, a leftwing feminist website whose pieces I usually appreciate. The thrust of the piece seems to be that focusing on mental illness in the case of Adam Lanza is a distraction from the more important issue of gun control.

Not sure what to say about this, except to point out the wonderful ability of the capitalist system to turn something that seems perfectly unobjectionable and even humanitarian (for example, sending college graduates to teach in inner-city schools) into its opposite. Actually existing gun control on a national scale will almost certainly not mean restrictions on white, rightwing or genuinely mentally ill psychotics obtaining guns.

What it will mean is the extension of stop-and-frisk programs that currently assist in the subjugation of people of color in New York City to every community in the United States. Gun control is a panacea to middle-class liberals – it is very unlikely to cause a decrease in crimes like this, and is almost certain to cause a steep increase in police violence against our lower classes.

Talking about mental illness is not a distraction. If this tragic event sparks a national conversation on how to better take care of people like Adam Lanza, and this can get united with the demands of the mentally ill for top-quality care on a national scale, then we will be able to say that something good came out of it.

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1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Politics

One response to “What Adam Lanza Tells us about Mental Illness

  1. Michael Duffett

    Thank you for this piece. It’s compassionate and thought provoking. Since Adam Lanza is dead, it’s going to be quite difficult to assess to what extent mental illness played its part, Was there an underlying schizophrenia, had be become psychotic?. Had he been instructed by “command voices” to carry out these killings? The killer of Prime Minister Verwoed of South Africa in the 60’s was instructed by a command voice – in this case “a tape worm” in his body. I know a lecturer who was instructed to rip out one of his eyes, which he did. Another cut off his penis following a command voice. It is true that the majority of those with schizophrenia pose no threat to society. But there is a small percentage, who through no fault of their own, can be dangerous. I agree with the writer that we need to cast that net as far as possible to identify those who need special treatment. Adam Lanzar, by all accounts so far, was not anti-social, but it is interesting that he chose to, or was driven, to target the most vulnerable of society – the children. There are thousands of teenagers in the USA who are “different” and just perhaps we need to step out of our bubble of safety and reach out to those who “are not like us”. The savagery of online bullying that takes place in USA is something that needs to be looked at because some vulnerable teenagers don’t have the resilience to deal with this and may react.

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