Where the Blame Lies
By Emma Smith | March 4, 2023
On the morning of December 14th, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza took a gun from the safe in his home and murdered his mother before driving to Sandy Hook Elementary, where he shot and killed 20 children and six staff members before taking his own life.
Medical reports would later reveal that Lanza “showed signs of severe and deteriorating internalized mental health problems,” which had gone untreated for years.
Later that day, Lisa Long of Boise, Idaho, published a controversial blog post titled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” In the article, Long shared her experience of living with a son who had an undiagnosed mental illness. She chronicled instances of having to call the police because her son was threatening her with a knife. She recalled the thousands of dollars spent on ambulance rides and hospital stays that did not amount to any functional solutions beyond safety plans that her other children already knew by heart and prescriptions that either didn’t help or merely intensified her son’s symptoms.
“I live with a son who is mentally ill,” Long said. “I love my son. But he terrifies me.”
Although it’s been over a decade since Long shared her experience of trying and failing to find help for her son, it would seem that little has changed when it comes to the helplessness and judgment parents feel when they’re faced with this situation. Onlookers who are fortunate enough to have no experience parenting a child with a mental illness are quick to place blame squarely on the parent’s shoulders.
I’m not denying that mental health conditions and subsequent behaviors can be exacerbated by a child’s environment. But in situations with non-abusive parents, where childhood trauma has no place in the equation, just where are we supposed to place the blame, if not with the parents?
In recent years, we as a society have begun an about-face when it comes to stigmatizing mental illness. That said, it’s hard to erase the belief we’ve held for centuries that mental illness is a character flaw and/or the result of a lack of morality. This notion still persists, though perhaps more often on a subconscious level, making it easy to place blame on parents for failing to instill proper values in their children.
Surely, we still often think, if a child has a mental illness, the parent must have had some role in causing it.
Our desperation to make sense of things, to know the “why” behind a certain behavior, is human nature. Because if you know why something happens, you’re more likely to be able to avoid it, to control it. We take comfort in the idea that mental illness is the result of poor parenting, if only because it gives us the reassurance that the situation is within our control.
If poor parenting is the cause, we think, then by default the opposite must be true. We can rest easy in the knowledge that because we are good parents, our children will not be at risk of developing schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, OCD, or any other serious mental illness.
This belief is pervasive enough to cause even those parents who are doing everything in their power to get treatment for their children to feel inadequate and ashamed. Not only that, it allows the rest of us to wash our hands of the problem facing the 49 percent of teens in the U.S. who have or have had a mental health disorder.
And it is a problem. In 2022, firearm fatalities became a leading cause of death among youth in the U.S., 30 percent of which were suicides.
After Lisa Long published her article, she was contacted by a child psychiatrist in New York who expressed interest in her son’s case. He diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and prescribed him medication. Finally, Long’s son was able to get the care he needed, but not without a hefty price tag. “My sweet boy,” Long said in a 2016 interview. “He’s received amazing treatment. But it cost an entire paycheck to visit that doctor, who didn’t take insurance. What about people who can’t afford that?”
What about them, indeed? What happens to the children whose parents can’t afford quality psychiatric care?
If mental health disorders are addressed and treated at the first sign of a problem, we can prevent these outcomes for children. But in order to do that, we have to start supporting their parents by advocating for more accessible mental health services.
That looks like more funding for school counselors and social workers; more beds and trained professionals at youth inpatient facilities; more implementation and training of evidence-based treatment interventions; more accessible home-based prevention programs; and more support groups for parents. It looks like a partnership with parents who are overwhelmed, exhausted, and terrified of what will happen to their child if they don’t get help soon.
It looks like learning more by listening instead of making assumptions about where the blame lies.
Emma Smith is a Leelanau County native who now lives in Traverse City. She works on the development team at Child and Family Services and is also a clinical mental health therapist.