Monday, December 17, 2012

I Am Adam Lanza's Teacher

I posted these comments on facebook yesterday as a response to Liza Long's blog post "Thinking the Unthinkable" as well as an anonymous post titled "I Am Adam Lanza's Psychiatrist: A Response From the Mental Health Trenches" but I wanted to post it here too with my own experiences included. I bring a very specific perspective to this argument over mental health, specifically in children, due to my role as a public school teacher.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General and the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, “four million children and adolescents in this country suffer from a serious mental disorder that causes significant functional impairments at home, at school and with peers. Half of all lifetime cases of mental disorders begin by age 14. Despite effective treatments, there are long delays, sometimes decades, between the first onset of symptoms and when people seek and receive treatment. An untreated mental disorder can lead to a more severe, more difficult to treat illness and to the development of co-occurring mental illnesses. In any given year, only 20 percent of children with mental disorders are identified and receive mental health services.”

Only 20 percent of children are identified and receive mental health services. Twenty percent.

I have seen these kids. They have walked the halls of my middle school, sat in my blue plastic chairs, glared at me under droopy greasy hair and hooded eyelids, through empty glassy eyes. Most of them do not obtain mental health support outside of our school, and some don’t even receive the help we offer on campus because their parents refuse to have them tested for disorders. There is a stigma attached to mental and emotional illness and many parents live in denial that their child may need some extra support, or may not be suited for an all-inclusive classroom.

I spent a large part of Sunday night reading up on Adam Lanza, Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, James Holmes and Seung-Hui Cho and what kept coming to mind were some of the faces that have passed through my door. How one day I very well could be that teacher, speaking to reporters… “well, he clearly had some problems. We tried to help him. The school did everything they were permitted to do, but I can’t say I am surprised.”

Two years ago I had a young man in my classroom. We’ll just call him John. John came to me at age 17 (do keep in mind that I teach 7th grade, where the appropriate age range is 11-13) after spending the past four years at home, unsocialized, uneducated, and often left alone to his own devices. I do not know why this young man was not in school nor why his parents are not in prison for it, but we’ll leave that to another discussion. From the moment I met John I knew he had serious problems. He was remarkably intelligent, but compulsive, awkward, and cruel to his peers. He would mumble nasty comments under his breath calling his classmates “objects” “creatures” and “dead souls.” He would shout out inappropriate things at inappropriate times. He would tell horrible fictitious stories about how he lived in a basement with rats, and how his “demon mother” would keep him locked in a closet while the rats gnawed at his toes (his mother had been dead for years). He hated women, and would bluntly state how we were all “witches” and "evil.” He suffered from delusions that everyone was out to hurt him. He had neurotic physical twitches and would rock back and forth in his chair, arms crossed tight across his lean body; or sometimes he would simply sit there turned to the wall, staring blankly for the entire class period in a catatonic-like state. However, the most frightening thing about John were his eyes. When he was having a bad day he would turn to me, and like Liza Long says in her article “his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the irises.” Almost like the darkness plaguing his soul had swelled up in his eyes, swallowing anything left of the sweet boy he probably once was.

Now, I am no psychologist nor do not profess to know very much about mental disorders beyond my own limited research and experiences, but John was very clearly troubled. If I had to “diagnose” him, I would say that he was definitely on the autism spectrum, and probably showing early signs of schizophrenia and sociopathology.

The school tried to intervene as best as we could, however John’s parents refused to have him tested. He desperately needed medication, but the school can’t distribute without permission. We had him set up for professional counseling, but we could not force his parents to take him there. Instead, we are told to handle him the best we can, our hands tied until John actually DID something violent. I knew he was a ticking time bomb, but again I was helpless until he acted on the vehement impulses that I knew were simmering just under the surface. I ultimately had John removed from my classroom after one particularly scary incident, culminating in me calling administration to my room and John spitting out at me “I hope you enjoy the fires of hell” as he was dragged away. I wrote a petition to the administration, expressing my concern for the safety of the students in my classroom and he was placed in another Language Arts classroom, taught by a man. Eventually he was expelled from the school after a myriad of other similar incidences. I do not know what became of him.

I say all this to show how, as terrifying as it is and as much as we would like to believe otherwise, Sandy Hook, Columbine, Aurora, and Virginia Tech could happen anywhere. I have no doubt in my mind that if pushed to the limit, and supplied with an arsenal of weapons, John was capable of such atrocities as these. Improved gun control laws are important and a discussion that we need to have in this country. However, until the real root of the problem is addressed these things will continue to happen. To quote Liza Long “I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.”