Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mental Wellness and the Mothering of Adam Lanza

Underneath the surface of nearly every article and comment I've read about the shooting in Conneticut has had the question of "why?" We're trying to answer this question of what could bring someone to do this? How could someone murder so many other people? How could they murder so many innocent people? The why dictates what our next appropriate response should be. If it is guns, we have to act to restrict access to them. (Gun advocates clearly do not see the gun as a critical factor in the reason behind this event. They would be wrong.) If it mental illness, we should work to expand access to mental health services and identify the problems, or the warning signs of these types of events. (I've observed a number of people on my Facebook feed pointing to this study, challenging how quickly people have jumped to the "we need greater access to mental health services in this country" plank of the response to this.) But both of these fall flat in the face of mass shootings as a cultural problem that we are experiencing.

One article that has gotten a lot of traffic was "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother", a mother's attempt to wrestle with her own son's mental illness. It garnered a response that I've also seen shared quite widely. (And yet another response.) The author of the original piece's gist has been rather lost in the reaction, so it deserves highlighting: she doesn't want her son to have the experience of mental health support come in the form of a cell. But our health care system leaves that as his almost certain destination for the support that his mother can only provide now and almost assuredly will not as he grows older.

Where the piece went awry, I believe, is the description of her struggles with him, as an individual. She sets up Adam Lanza's violent incident as her son's future. This is part of the conversation around the mass shootings, that of the mental illness of the person responsible. The problem is that we're still in the realm of mental illness as a primary motivating factor in these shootings. And we have to, don't we? What could provoke or push someone to do this? It has to be mental illness, we say.

Mark Ames points to a different reason: that mass shootings are a response to an utterly inhumane society, where people are striking out in attempts to re-gain power. It's a compelling argument. It also challenges us because it suggests that the phenomenon of "mass shootings" are ultimately a product of our society - he attributes it to Reaganism, which is really just another name for an expression of neoliberalism and capitalism, the high-stress, highly competitive environments faced by teenagers where individuals are segregated and conditioned into identities - the jock, the nerd, and so on. (It should be noted that we can hold Reagan and the U.S. government responsible for the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which greatly damaged the existing fabric of mental care in the United States.)

This highlights a problem with our society: that we function primarily in the realm of dualism and binaries - I am this thing, or I am that thing. I am mentally well, or I am mentally ill or un-well. The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) and our classification system is usually predicated on this binary. Individuals might be on particular spectrums, such as the autism spectrum, but they are, at their core, primarily autistic or not autistic.

The classification of someone as mentally ill serves as a powerful function in our society, both bureaucratically and medically, and is a way for us to decide where we are going to allocate resources. Just read some of the recent articles around recent plans to reclassify children on the autism spectrum and you can see how powerful this process is, and how damaging it is to families that rely on measly social support in our country to manage the basics. (Which is what makes Nick Kristof's most recent column rather disgusting to me, considering his previous campaigning.)

In my experience, working as a pseudo-helping profession, the stigma around mental health services exists precisely because of this classification of people as "well" or "ill". Well people categorically do not use mental health services, while ill people do - and that's if you are even at the income level where you can take advantage of mental health services in your community. Mental health professionals would most likely tell you that this is a myth, but its part of our framework with how we conceptualize therapy or counseling.

When we think about mental wellness, an analogy that I’ve found that works well for me, and usually for other people when I share it with them, is that of a every person having a sort of emotional battery. Everyone tends to have a battery and experience traumatic events or daily stresses. Daily stresses can wear down that battery. Traumas can be a sudden, immense drain on it. How well that battery functions or how charged it is tends to be a telling indicator of our resiliency or our ability to bounce back after experiencing difficult events. When that battery is low, a small thing, like someone cutting you off at an intersection, can feel like the biggest, most offensive thing anyone could ever do to you. Over a series of time, you can experience constant drain, wearing you down - a minimum-wage job where you're struggling to make it by, or worried about being unemployed, or any number of things that people experience in our society.

A more useful concept for us responding to the needs of feeling mentally un-well of what I would term “mental maintenance”. We all experience hits to our batteries of mental wellness. We all can fall anywhere on a mental spectrum from well to unwell on any given day, and depending on how much we've been ground down. Then, a useful paradigm for us is to view mental health as a spectrum where someone may find themselves anywhere along at a particular point in time, and which can take a variety of expressions. My upbeat "feeling good" will express itself differently than another person; I might be boisterous and they might be quietly content. But both of us are well.

Arguing about who is or isn’t Adam Lanza’s mother is actually quite counterproductive. Speculating about the home conditions of someone and their mental health history is not necessary. Guns serve as a powerful catalyst in facilitating mass shootings (hence why I support greater regulations restricting their usage and ownership). American masculinity is another powerful catalyst. Capitalism is undoubtedly another contributing factor. The simple answer is that everyone could benefit from more access to mental health services, and destigmatizing of this binary wherein individuals struggle to be well on their own versus seeking support and care from the community around them.

As Ashley Miller explains eloquently:
I want the next person who hears things or sees things, or has invasive thoughts to reach out and have a place to land. I want them to be listened to and to find employment. I want their safety net to care for them and call on the bad days.
And, rather than questioning Nancy Lanza's parenting decisions, we need to move in three directions, and we need to do all of them. First, we need to work to increase access to mental health services, and destigmatize it in our society. Normalize it. Those that are in therapy or visit a counselor - if they feel comfortable - should come out and say it. I'm one of those people. Second, we need to restrict access to firearms. The research (from non-NRA supported groups) seems fairly conclusive that increased access and ease of access to firearms is a contributing factor to these shootings. Finally, we need to institute a living wage paid to every person in society. While this might seem like the least relevant to the shooting, I think it is intimately tied to an expression of care that we have. When society is a collection of atomistic individuals struggling for the basic necessities and all the attendant stresses that brings with it, we will have violence.

Thanks to the excellent investigative reporting from Mother Jones' team. Please support their work.

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