Although the instinct following the Sandy Hook massacre, for some, was to direct obscenities toward the gunman, my feelings were different. Instead, I felt a deep sadness over the question of whether this might not have happened if the gunman had been living in an institution where he could have been treated for his illness and kept from accessing guns.
The details still aren’t clear on what psychological illness he had, but I refuse to believe a human in his right mind would randomly open fire on innocent children.
After reading a book called January First, a memoir by Michael Schofield about a father trying to handle his violent schizophrenic preschool-aged daughter, I started to understand how difficult it is for families to get help for their mentally ill children. For instance, I didn’t realize that there’s no definitive place you can take your sick child for long periods of time—hospitals are generally short-term stays, and few even have openings for the mentally ill. If you don’t have much money, forget the idea of a hospital altogether. And the thought of taking one’s violent child to prison is completely absurd. Even a young adult with a mental illness shouldn’t be pent up in prison; though criminals choose to commit their crimes, the mentally ill don’t choose their illnesses.
Additionally, there’s no sensible separation of people within these facilities based on their level of mental illness. I can vouch for this. I spent three days in the psych ward when I was 20, which I don’t tell people about often in part because of the stigma. I was clinically depressed and had been taking meds, but at that moment I was just in a really terrible spot after a breakup and had deeply injured my wrists during a panic attack. With the help of a close friend, I admitted myself to the hospital.
I got there around midnight, where they took at least two hours to determine whether I was a threat to myself or not. After saying they didn’t feel comfortable letting me return home, they transported me to a different hospital’s psych ward. I got there at 4:30 in the morning and had to fill out paperwork for a half hour. At five a.m., emotionally and physically exhausted, I thought they were going to let me go to bed, but they said I had to speak with a psychiatrist. I sat in her office, dumbstruck as she began to unload on me.
“You see those cuts on your wrist? You seriously think any man will want to marry you with those? You seriously think you’ll be able to get a good job?”
Maybe this tough love approach worked on some people, but she pushed me over the edge.
“I’m so tired, please just let me go to bed,” I begged her.
She took that as me being defiant and forced me to listen to more of her criticism. After that night was over, I was taken to my room where I eventually fell asleep.
I woke up to the strangest surroundings.
Outside of my room, wandering the halls were schizophrenics — those who had attempted suicide multiple times, and a man who had endured many rounds of electroshock therapy and was prone to violent outbursts. One old man wore a tinfoil helmet to keep the aliens out and sat alone in the corner mumbling. One 17-year-old boy was perfectly healthy but had faked a suicide attempt to get out of paying his parents a $300 debt. My roommate was a sweet middle-aged woman who had been seriously abused by her husband.
I made it out of the psych ward after three days of demonstrating that I could perform simple tasks without bursting out crying. What stuck out to me was how ill-equipped the staff was. It seemed like there were only one or two employees for every 15 patients, and the employees talked down to us and treated us like we were all raving lunatics. Just staying there for three days made me feel crazier than I’d felt my whole life.
As a parent, I’m starting to realize how difficult it would be to make the right decisions regarding a mentally-ill child. It’s easy for people to write the parents of disturbed children off as irresponsible because they didn’t lock their kids up in a closet or something. The only thing any halfway decent parent wants for their child is for him or her to be safe and happy. There’s nothing safe or happy about locking up a kid at home, in a prison, or in some understaffed and murky hospital.
I will admit I’ve spent a good deal of time worrying about my daughter having a mental illness. For a few months I was even on the anti-vaccination bandwagon because of the supposed connection to autism. I did go ahead and get her vaccinated, and she seems to be perfectly healthy, but now and then she’ll point to something that isn’t there or do something really quirky and my hypochondriac mind suddenly assumes she has some psychological issue.
It’s very unlikely that she has anything serious; if she does develop any kind of mental illness it’s far more likely that she’ll have depression like I do. But often I wonder what I would do if she did have something severe. Would I be able to afford the care she needed? Would I still be a good mother, or would I snap?
I would love to live in a society where every city has a facility for the mentally ill — a facility that’s staffed with experts who know how to handle people with both minor and major mental illnesses. I would love for low and middle-income families to know they can move their loved ones into such a facility and not have to worry about spending their life savings on medical bills. I would love for these facilities to offer meaningful work and activities to the mentally ill, to give their lives purpose and direction, and for these people to be able to spend their whole lives there if desired.
As Sandy Hook has prompted us to consider, why isn’t such a place a staple in our society?