Weeks after the tragedy in Newtown, though facts are still to be confirmed about Adam Lanza’s history, we struggle to understand how it might have been prevented – or, at least, how to help prevent it from happening again.
First, some facts: Court-ordered hospitalization for mental illness is authorized in every state, but each state’s criteria for involuntary treatment is different. Connecticut’s report card? Not so great.
“Connecticut’s civil commitment laws are among the most restrictive in the nation when it comes to getting help for a loved one in psychiatric crisis,” said Kristina Ragosta, senior legislative and policy counsel for the Treatment Advocacy Center, who serves as the organization’s expert on Connecticut. Ragosta said the law is restrictive in three ways that differentiate it from states with stronger laws.
1. An individual needs to be dangerous before intervention is possible. The standard requires that the individual be a danger to self or others or a danger due to grave disability before commitment is possible.
2. The law provides no option for qualifying individuals to receive court-ordered treatment in the community. This makes Connecticut one of only six states that does not provide the option of assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) as a condition of living in the community.
3. The state’s standard does not take into consideration an individual’s past psychiatric history, such as repeated hospitalizations, and/or symptoms of psychiatric deterioration that could culminate in violence or other consequences of non-treatment.”
Here is my letter to the state’s bipartisan task force
I am the mother of a beautiful son who suffers from schizophrenia. “Ben” is now 30 years old, and with treatment is both a student (Dean’s List) and taxpayer (employed in season at a Connecticut tourist attraction, where he interacts beautifully and appropriately with the public).
Without treatment, or when services are cut, he is a patient instead- wandering aimlessly through the halls of a psychiatric hospital until he agrees to go back on his meds. This has happened three times since Ben began his recovery phase – and each time we face the fact that he may never return to us, as there is no mandated treatment, no assisted outpatient treatment, and we his family are left holding the bag and guessing how to help him.
We have struggled to get our adult loved one help and been thwarted by the restrictive mental health treatment laws in Connecticut.
We were fortunate to get educated and supported by NAMI-CT, but other families are not so informed, and
eventually feel they have no choice but to give up – and their loved ones wind up homeless, in jail, in a nursing home, or – worst – threatening others and/or acting upon delusions that are very real to them, and may include violence.
While I understand that it is unclear what led to the events in Newtown, it is clear that our civil commitment
laws are in need of reform. Nancy Lanza, I will venture to guess, was left with no help, no legal right to mandate help for her son – and ended up guessing how to bind with him. In her case, she must have chosen the only thing she knew from her own childhood: target practice.
Mental Health treatment could have made all the difference.
Too many families, like ours, are left feeling helpless and unsupported. Eventually, our family was able to make educated guesses about how to help our son, because of NAMI, memoirs, and other sources of information. But not all families know how to find this info, and even we sometimes guess wrong. Trust me, no family should have to do it alone. We wind up broke, scared, frustrated, and grieving for the loss of hopes, dreams, and someone we love.
Mental health services make all the difference, and these are woefully underfunded, confusing to find, and difficult to maneuver. The cost of not providing these services, as we saw in Newtown, is so much higher than funding them, both emotionally and yes, bottom line, financially.
The last time my son had a relapse, the government wound up paying for a seven-week hospital stay instead of part-time residential staffing that would have helped him stay stable.
You add it up.
Let’s vote for our futures, and for the one in four families left dealing with mental illness all alone, and for the possibilities that can exist for those who receive treatment (assisted as needed) and support services.
We need a Kendra’s law in Connecticut. It might have helped us so many times – and it might have helped those in Newtown.
You can read more about our story in my book, Ben Behind His Voices: One Family’s Journey from the Chaos of Schizophrenia to Hope. or I will be happy to come and tell you in person.