Citizens Aren’t Powerless to Prevent Atrocities

I’ve known Adam Lanza too. (He isn’t my son.) He had a different name, but the same profile. We’ve all met these people. They live in every community. And it’s not too late to stop them.

They are too disabled to hold a job. Their disability doesn’t lie in their limbs, but in their minds. They live with their parents, or in a group home, have no friends, and no reason to leave the house.

This is not the picture of a happy life. Shunned by society, they have only their family, or hired caretakers, who may be very sick of them. Just think about how you feel after a week with your parents. Then multiply that by 1,040. That’s how many weeks Adam Lanza spent with his mother and almost nobody else, from what it sounds like.

The solution proposed by experts and amateurs alike: Adam Lanza, and Jared Loughner, and the other mass murderers were mentally ill. They needed help, from mental health professionals.

Adam Lanza did need help. As my brother said on the phone yesterday, “six-years-olds draw hearts and want attention. They have nothing to give but love. Anyone who would kill them…it’s sick.”

It’s heinous. And such indiscriminate violence must be borne out of great pain. When animals and humans are in a great deal of pain, their cognitive functioning is not optimal. High emotions block rational thinking. Targets are missed. Social cues are misread. They lash out or in, hurting others indiscriminately, or hurting themselves. A mental health professional can help a person identify this behavior. He or she can prescribe medication to improve functioning, teach coping skills, and refer the client to community resources and activities. But here’s what mental health professionals can’t do: they can’t reduce the pain.

The pain that comes from isolation and dysfunctional relationships with family members who many disabled people depend upon for survival will not go away through talk therapy alone. A mental health professional is not a friend. And being a mental patient is not a role that carries esteem. Humans need friends, esteem, and activities that offer a sense of achievement in order to stay healthy.

The Adam Lanzas and Jared Loughners of the world needed to be part of society in order for that pain to go away. They needed to have roles that prevented them from getting so sick. They needed to be welcomed somewhere, and to do something well. A mental health worker could have helped them find those things if society had provided them.

There are plenty of roles for disabled people: bagging groceries as a volunteer, discussing American presidents with old folks in an assisted living facility, walking the neighbors’ dogs, weeding gardens for a landscaper, playing chess at the corner store or park, participating in synagogue or church events, writing fan fiction for a thriving fan fiction community, or working with a group of Linux users to create a new Java-based widget platform.

When society obsesses over the need for mental healthcare for the Adam Lanzas of the world, it passes the buck. It undermines the importance of social acceptance for disabled people. It’s like a person with a messy house who throws a banana peel on the floor and screams, “I need more housecleaners!”

If we keep our houses cleaner, we won’t be dependent on housecleaners.

We can welcome disabled people and offer them small roles that get them out of the house or into a social milieu. When they apply for jobs at our businesses, we can give them small, manageable tasks once a week. When they apply to join our synagogues but can’t afford the membership fee, we can waive it. When they apply to join our quilting group, bowling team, or gardening club, we can accept them, even if they make us slightly uncomfortable. We can greet them with kindness and conversation when we encounter them in public or at their homes.

If having disabled people around frightens you, that’s understandable. Check with their family members, their doctors or therapists before inviting them into your world. We do that with employees for good reason. But don’t categorically reject them. Because that’s what has occurred in the case of Adam Lanza and Jared Loughner, and the result is atrocious.

We can cry out for more psychologists, more welfare spending on mental health services, do nothing ourselves, and accept the collateral damage. Or we can step up and be citizens. Those are the choices.

Emily Meehan is a writer and a children’s advocate who is producing a feature film she wrote after spending six months working with foster children living in a Northern California group home. Learn more about the film here.


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2 Responses to Citizens Aren’t Powerless to Prevent Atrocities

  1. jenny says:

    I appreciate this article but and can agree that those with disturbing mental issues need a community of people to support them and encourage them. Where this article falls way short is in the truth about the ‘disabled’ person and our ability to help them. My nephew who is 10 now has had disturbing thoughts since as young as I can remember, I can remember him as a three year old telling me that he dreamed his family would have their throats slashed, and he wasnt upset about the dream. At eight he said he wished he would die, that everyone hates him, and so he lashes out at them and antagonizes them as a way to hate them first and more than they could hate him. This is a child who goes to church every Sunday with his family, he has 5 other siblings. He has aunts and cousins, he plays soccer on a team. He can be quite cheery and sweet too. Just last night he drew me five beautiful pictures while I was visiting. The teachers in his school must KNOW he is an issue, he has to go to the ‘support room’ a lot for being disruptive, negative, etc. He was suspended last year for a ‘joke’ he made as a 9 year old to bring a BB gun to school and shoot people. The teachers know he doesn’t fit in well, but as his aunt I am not someone they can discuss it with, and as far as I know they haven’t made any moves towards getting him greater help or trying to socialize him better. The 20 year old Adam Lanzas were 5 year olds once, 10 year olds. These children have a place to be, its called school. But the school may be helpless if the parents aren’t seeking help. I love my sister but she is in great denial about the impact this is having on this boy. The times I have begged her to get help for him have only caused her to push me further away, and so the only way I know to help is to not say much about it, but to just be there in the ways that I can. But I cant make other kids want to be friends with him, and more importantly I cant make him want to be friends with them. His mentality about people, and his attitude, makes it very difficult for HIM to want to connect with others, its a painful experience. The thing that concerns me most is that he doesnt seem to have that sense of empathy or compassion for others, he cant identify with them or relate to their feelings. The very difficult truth is that while I believe there are those who won’t do what Adam Lanza did in spite of fitting the profile, and it may be because they maintain connections in the community, I feel that there is something dramatically wrong with the minds of the people who suffer from this, and its not for a lack of social contact, in fact, that sometimes makes it worse, as the perception of others is laced with their own self loathing and potentially with homocidal/suicidal thoughts, that at least in my nephews case started shockingly young.

    • Emily Meehan says:

      I hear you. But most of these individuals did reach out at some point. The key is for society to take their hand when they do reach out.

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