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Mental Health Takes Center Stage in Sandy Hook Discussion

Despite concrete knowledge about the mental health of Adam Lanza, or what it would mean, a conversation has arisen in Howard County and across the nation about access to care.

Much has been written but little is known, officially, about the mental health of Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old Newtown, Conn. man who officials say shot and killed his mother and then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 first graders and six adults before killing himself.

He was “kind of strange,” “painfully shy,” and “just a bit off,” former classmates told the Hartford Courant, and, accourding to the Courant, investigators have said Lanza may have had a mental illness or developmental disorder, specifically Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. 

Despite the fact that researchers have found no link between Asperger's and violence, the shooting has pushed mental health into the forefront of the news and has led Howard County officials to declare it a priority.

Medical professionals with no connection to Lanza have taken to talk shows, newspaper and the radio to speculate on Lanza’s mental health and any illness he may have had

Recently, mental health advocates and those living with mental illnesses have taken to the media as well – to try to temper any perceived relationship between the syndrome and the propensity for violence.

The topic came up Friday night at the Howard County Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s (NAMI) board meeting.

On the one hand, Executive Director Beverly Francis-Gibson said, she is glad that out of the shooting, a discussion about mental health has emerged. “But we don’t want it to be associated only with people who are violent, only people who are bringing guns,” she said.

“For us it’s about dispelling that myth. Most people I encounter [who have a mental illness] are living their lives, taking care of their kids and going to work every day.”

That myth is particularly worrying because of the stigmas already associated with mental illness.

“What I find is that many people know people, or have connections to people, who’ve had a mental illness but because of the stigma, no one talks about it,” Francis-Gibson said. That is, she added, until something “explosive” brings attention to the issue.

The Sandy Hook shooting did just that. and in Howard County, Executive Ken Ulman and Police Chief William McMahon announced the formation of a task force aimed at increasing communication between mental health professionals, school staff and police.

“Mental health has been something that has not gotten the support and resources it needs,” Ulman said Monday. 

And that, Francis-Gibson said, is despite the fact that NAMI and other local organizations, offers a bevy of support groups and services dedicated to everyone from people dealing with mental illness to their friends and family. And all of NAMI’s support group services are free. 

A lot of the problem, Francis-Gibson said, is that people don’t know where to go. “We’ve been around since 1979,” she said, “But we still face the issue of continually trying to build awareness about our program.”

Mental Health Services in Howard County:

Deborah Cole December 19, 2012 at 12:39 PM
Adam came from a wealthy family and so access to mental health care was not an issue. Heallthy Howard gives access to mental health care in Howard County.
Dave A. December 19, 2012 at 12:59 PM
Mental healthcare in this country is hit or miss. I have seen first hand someone get taken for an emergency petition, get the shuffle out the door at the hospital after the 4 or 5 day stay, then go right back home and commit suicide after the psych docs say they are no danger to themselves or anyone else! Sad but true.
michelle December 19, 2012 at 02:18 PM
My husband was in the military for a few years and came back from overseas with mental health issues, as did my brother. Both tried to get care through the VA--no luck. My husband got care through my insurance through work. The VA failed him. If you don't have health insurance, you're pretty much screwed.
Lisa Sansone December 19, 2012 at 03:22 PM
Lighthouse, Inc. is a nonprofit counseling center for children, youth and families that has been in Catonsville since 1971. No one is turned away for inability to pay. Every year, we have to scramble to find money to provide these critical services. It is a shame! The State needs to fully fund this critically important center. Lisa Sansone, Chairman, Board of Directors of Lighthouse, Inc.
Brandie Jefferson December 19, 2012 at 03:43 PM
Thank you for that information, Lisa. If anyone else knows of additional resources, let me know and I'll add them to the list.
stephen feldman December 19, 2012 at 03:48 PM
First as some here note, we need to make access to mental health better known and available. But, the mother of Mr Lanza knew he could not deal with society, kept him at home, did not seek help she could have afforded, and also chose to keep high capacity weapons in her house, unsecured. That situation is untenable. What to do? I dont know. But not at least looking at some intrusion into what we now think of as parental rights, or privacy(Mr Lanza was an adult), when a community is aware of social dysfunction, is not unreasonable, when, as was the case, the community seemed to know, and not care, that Ms Lanza was armed to the teeth. Yes, question the need for such guns. But also leaving the mentally ill solely to the care of parents who are known to have gun licenses is a question that deserves equal treatment in our current discussion with the sale and possession of high capacity magazines and assault weapons.
Keith December 19, 2012 at 04:21 PM
My personal experience is with HCPSS. Seems kids with mental health issues (thus IEPs), who might be better served in non-public settings, are tolerated in the classroom to avoid paying for resources that address their special needs as well as educate them. This was pointed out to me by a past Maryland assistant attorney general who wrote disabilities law for kids. I think the comment was "Howard County is the worst...". I guess that school system rep comes with a cost. Pray it never goes as high as it did in Connecticut.
Colliemom December 19, 2012 at 09:35 PM
There isn't any easy answer. Cannot force people to go to evaluation /counseling/therapy or take medications if they don't want to. This currently is the law. ERs and MDs have to follow the law. The mother of a 20 year old son cannot force him to do anything, no matter how much money they had. That in part accounts for the high number of homeless with mental illness; families get fed up and force them out. Can only committ people if they voice active threats towards themselves or others, just acting odd isn't enough. Then they have to have a 72 hour hearing, where it is decided if they need to be held against their will any longer. Often they have been started on meds and are released because are more stable - but won't take meds on their own after release. And reality is, all of this costs much money for care. I'd like to see far more proactive psych treatment - but not sure that would be done.
Colliemom December 19, 2012 at 09:42 PM
Federal law says children with disabilities have to be educated in the least restrictive environment. Unless a child is committable under the Baker Act, Howard County (and all counties) have to deal with them in the public school system as best they can. If the county can't meet their needs, then the county school system has to pay for their education in a private setting. This is prohibatively expensive for the taxpaying base. Find if we're talking a handful of children; but we're talking hundreds or thousands. The reputation of HC schools has caused families with disabled children to move here, to enroll them in those public schools. HC has an unusually high number of students with autism - because the parents move to the county, not because anything is causing an endemic cluster. I would counter that because HC schools are the best, they are being overwhelmed by children with disabilities who have relocated to take advantage of them. We simply cannot afford to pay exorbitant private therapy costs for every disruptive child; that's just reality. Don't know the solution.
stephen feldman December 19, 2012 at 10:58 PM
understandably, many of us know what the current law is for spec ed and referral of persons with mental issues that may pose a danger but no one refers matter to a doctor. we all say, because what else are we going to say, "that's the law". well, the laws were different in the sixtties, and for good reasons, laws were changed. but circumstances change. it is not unreasonable to ask our representatives to consider updates to the law if the law does not comport with either common sense or with current public safety requirments. Most people with mental issues should not be seperated from families. On the other hand, we are seeing more and more violence from people whose families know the person is antisocial and potentially violent, yet they choose to hide it.At what point is a family's embarassment to outweigh the lives of dozens of innocent people. And the number of sp ed kids in our schools is excessive. At what point is someone simply not suited for the one size fits all curriculum, rather than "disabled" and forced to fit in? We need more different programs for different learners and aptitudes, not more expensive duplication of teachers and endless paperwork for kids who do not and will not achieve success in programs of little interest to them. In other words, what was radical fifty yrs ago is the conservative status quo today. Time for radical reevaluation of what works and what doesnt. It's not 1970 any more.
Keith December 20, 2012 at 01:23 PM
Colliemom, so is it therapy or education that the county (aka us) pays for? It's my understanding it is education cost that the county MAY pay, the decision hinging on the IEP. Insurance, MA, and out-of-pocket covers therapy. I'm not focused on the dollars anyway; I'm talking about obtaining objective data. The IEP process isn't the only forum but, IMHO, is the only summary forum where parents and school compare notes and adjust. Kids spend a lot of hours under school eyes. Should a pattern of behavior be minimized due to potential cost? I'm not saying it's on the schools to front run these decisions. But I weigh the data somewhat differently when I know its provider has a fiscal stake in the game. And I form a different opinion when I hear “Johnny got 9 IRs this Q but only 7 in the last, he's 20% better" than when I hear "Johnny got 64 IRs in the last 2 years."
Colliemom December 20, 2012 at 06:00 PM
Keith - I'm not an educator, so my info of how the system works for special needs students is limited. My understanding is that the school systems are mandated to provide specialized programs for each child. In situations in which the school system is unable to meet a need within their system, they are mandated to pay for the appropriate education if outside of their system. I would think that the special schools offer therapy,etc as part of their program, so would think the County Educational System is stuck with the full bill. This leads to abuses, as parents expect too much from a public school system, so sue to have private schools fully paid for under this law. Special needs students often require a full time educational aid in school, who is paid for by......our tax dollars. Kids without disabilities end up having their education time sucked up by kids who require lots of one on one attention for behavioral or other issues. No easy answer. Just thought targeting Howard County as a problem was not fully accurate, as they are not creating the problem of too many special needs students. Rather, the special needs students are moving and enrolling in the schools because of their great reputation, resulting in a too high proportion of special needs students mainstreamed into regular classes. Used to have special schools set aside, but now that's not permitted. Not sure if Cedar Lane school is closed now, or remains an option for parents to choose.

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