September 5, 2015


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Illness's challenges daunting

Blogger details everyday struggles

Liza Long went from unknown blogger to Internet sensation this weekend after she compared herself to the mother of Connecticut mass killer Adam Lanza. Long, a single Idaho mother of four, reflected on her own 13-year-old son's mental illness, his threats to kill her and his siblings and the pain of loving someone who terrifies you.

She could be the mother of any of the long list of ill boys who have killed, she wrote. Local experts say she's not alone in coping with the anguish of raising a mentally ill child. While there are resources available, some parents feel shame and guilt because their children need psychiatric help. The Newtown, Conn., murders won't make their lives any easier.

On Friday, Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire, killing 20 children, six adults and himself. He earlier killed his mother, shooting her four times in the head.

"Three days before 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year-old son Michael missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong colour pants," she blogged.

"I can wear these pants," he said, his tone increasingly belligerent...

"They are navy blue," I told him. "Your school's dress code says black or khaki pants only."

"They told me I could wear these," he insisted. "You're a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!"

"You can't wear whatever pants you want to," I said... And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch... Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.

"I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me."

Long's blog entry, which has been widely criticized for her comparison of her son to a mass murderer and for laying bare his mental-health problems, is chilling. She writes of the boy pulling a knife and threatening to kill her and himself after she asked him to return his overdue library books. She disarmed him while her two younger children followed the family safety protocol and locked themselves in the car.

Dr. Keith Hildahl, medical director of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's Child and Adolescent Mental Health Program, estimates one in 20 Winnipeg school-age children is receiving mental-health services at any given time. Their needs include major mental-health issues, depression, behaviour problems, trauma and addictions. Patients can be as young as two, but the peak years are 13 to 16.

Hildahl says parents shouldn't be looking at their teenagers sideways after Friday's massacre. Tension is normal and outbursts common, he says. If a parent feels they are in immediate physical danger, they should call the police, he says.

Hildahl admits "there's never enough services" for children (and adults) with mental-health issues. Families are overstressed, he says, kids eat dinner watching TV and not engaging with their families, and our media-saturated world brings tragedies immediately into our homes, live and in full colour.

"In some ways, Newtown might as well have happened in Winnipeg," Hildahl said. His wife attended a Monday-evening vigil for six-year-old former Winnipegger Ana Márquez-Greene, slain on Friday.

He says "a decent effort" is being made to diagnose and treat mental illness, but some diagnoses come with bleak outlooks. Ten per cent of all people living with schizophrenia will take their own lives, he says. Depression, even if treated, also carries a suicide risk.

"We are working very hard with very damaged, very traumatized kids," he says of some young patients.

One Seven Oaks School Division principal, who requested anonymity, says "mental health and wellness" get a great deal of attention in schools. She says the first line of defence is a strong relationship between classroom teacher and student, bolstered by making school a safe and supportive environment. The division also relies on the support of all staff members, guidance counsellors and clinicians.

Hildahl is convinced the stigma surrounding mental illness can be tempered if people talk about the challenges they and their children face.

"(Parents) are terrorized by phone calls during the day (at work)," he says. "If you're a parent of the child (with a mental illness), every phone call from the school teaches you to be embarrassed by your child."

That's hyperbole, but Hildahl is talking about the real anxiety of parents who must cope daily with the outbursts and inappropriate behaviour of an ill child.

Liza Long wrote: "This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense."

Newtown, Conn., doesn't make sense. The travails of mentally ill children, their parents, their teachers and siblings don't make sense.

Ignoring the mental-health needs of our children doesn't make sense.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 18, 2012 A5

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