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. Across Maryland, police increased their presence at schools, officials called for tougher gun laws 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: