Can government solve our mental-health crisis?

"I am Adam Lanza's mother." That is the title of a piece that has been making the rounds online in the past couple of days. It is an article written by Liza Long, a woman who has an autistic son, a son who is highly intelligent and can be very sweet, but one who can turn to violence without the slightest warning. She writes, "I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me." Indeed, he has threatened his mother and himself so many times that her other two children know that when it happens they must run out to the car and lock themselves inside as protection.

What kind of desperation must drive a mother to keep a child in a home when she knows that he is a danger to her and a danger to his siblings? What are her alternatives? Liza Long did quit her job as a freelancer and take a job that had health insurance so that her son's treatment could be more fully covered. She has taken him to mental hospitals for brief stays, but her social worker told her that the only long-term solution would be pressing charges against her son:

“If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail," he said. "That's the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges."

I don't believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael's sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology.

Long goes on to describe how prisons are now used to house the mentally ill. But even real mental institutions have their share of problems.

Most families would never want to send their children to a state-run or state-supported mental institution, but few families can afford an alternative -- either a private facility or round-the-clock care at home. Earlier this year a teenager died at Leake and Watts, a residential treatment facility in Yonkers, NY. The facility is a nonprofit, but seems to receive most of its funding from government agencies, including the New York City Administration for Children's Services, the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, etc. The teenager died while being restrained by the staff.

The boy's mother just announced that she is suing the institution. According to the Journal News:

The suit alleges that they used physical force on Foster “which resulted in pain, suffering, choking, pre-death terror” and ultimately Corey’s death. The suit also alleges that the facility failed to obtain medical care for Foster in a timely fashion and was aware that Foster suffered from a heart condition that made him physically vulnerable “and at risk to certain amounts of strain or force.”

It's perfectly possible that this incident could have occurred anywhere. As Long describes her own son's outbursts, it can take several adults to keep his violent outbursts under control. Can that be done without the boy getting hurt? Perhaps not all the time.

Over the next few weeks, it looks like we will be having a "national conversation" not only about gun control, but about mental health. The temptation, as always, will be to find a government solution for this problem. And maybe there must be some kind of structural and legal change in the system, whereby our prisons are not the default home for people who are violent as a result of mental illness. But it also seems like there is a place in this conversation for civil society, for nonprofits, for religious organizations, to figure out how we can better serve the needs of those with mental illness and their families.

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