On Parenting a Mentally Ill Son


While we're all talking about what might done about gun safety, it's also worth talking about what might be done in the realm of mental health. This piece, provocatively entitled "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother," is really worth a read.

Liza Long recounts her long fight to help her young mentally ill son, and the great fear that he will someday harm her, her two younger children, or someone else:

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me. A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7- and 9-year-old siblings knew the safety plan--they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me.

Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn't have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.

We still don't know what's wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He's been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood-altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.

This piece is a gripping read. I think, as parents, we think of our influence as all-powerful. When a kid succeeds, we like to point to the home; when he doesn't, we do the same. And yet here is an illness that has no respect for the old words of "discipline" and "toughness."

With that said, I didn't hear any mention of a father in this piece. I don't want to overstate the value of fathers, and some fathers (chronically abusive ones, for instance) can contribute the most by exiting the scene. Yet, on some level, parenting is work, and when all hands are called to deck (as must be the case when your son is threatening murder and suicide), a set of hands here is missing.

These spree shooting are almost wholly perpetrated by men. Perhaps this is just a matter of genes. But I also wonder about what we (as fathers) are communicating to our boys about what the world owes, and the methods they may use to secure it.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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