By Lisa Lambert
Lisa Lambert is the executive director of the Parent/Professional Advocacy League, which is subtitled “The Massachusetts Family Voice For Children’s Mental Health.”
“He doesn’t want to take the risk and have someone think he could be a shooter,” one mother said, “just because he has a mental health diagnosis.”
I was at a meeting with other parents whose children have mental health needs. This mother told us her son was reluctant to leave his high school classroom for an important evaluation, which included psychological testing.
Like much of America, we were talking about the recent and not-so-recent shootings on campuses and in communities across the country. For this mother, as with many parents whose children have mental health issues, the conversation is far more personal and troubling than for most.
Some parents said that in response to recent shooting incidents, their children are dropping out of services or refusing school supports so they won’t risk their peers or teachers finding out why they get treatment.
As a parent, this breaks my heart. Young adults shouldn’t have to choose between the safety found in avoiding treatment and the healing found in seeking it.
During our discussion, another mother reported that her son was in his first year of college and struggling to complete all his coursework. Freshman year is a stressful time for many students and even more so for students with depression. Because her son had had special education services in high school, he could access supports there to help him manage his academic and emotional stress.
She encouraged him to go to the college student services office to get help. He responded, “I’d rather drop the classes I am most behind in. If I go there, the professors and other students will know I have mental health problems. They might think I could be the next shooter.”
Often, as a news channel covers the latest shooting, the speculation immediately jumps to mental illness. While the station waits for details or settles in before the next briefing from local officials, the link between the troubled shooter and mental illness is made and strengthened, often with scant evidence.
Sometimes that link is real. In our hearts, many of us feel that a person’s mental health has to be compromised to take the lives of others. The search for signs of mental illness is on with an unspoken conviction that this must be the tipping factor which led to violence.
Young people with mental health issues watch the same news stations, read the same news-feeds online and see the same tweets as the rest of us. Their families (and I am one of those parents) do, too. In recent weeks, I’ve been hearing repeated reports that one effect of that news is to prompt some young adults to turn away from treatment and services because they are worried about being eyed with suspicion. They would rather take the chance that their depression, mood swings or even psychosis could worsen than risk the judgement that can result from other people hearing about a diagnosis.
According to a 2012 survey by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly 20 percent of young adults ages 18-25 have a diagnosed mental illness. In that same age group, almost nine percent have experienced a major depressive episode, and over seven percent have had thoughts of suicide in the past year.
Yet more than half of those with a diagnosable illness are not receiving treatment. In addition, dropout rates from outpatient mental health services are high in young adults, and they are far more likely to drop out of treatment than mature adults.
Decisions about whether to seek treatment for mental health issues continue to be strongly impacted by stigma. This is especially true for teens and young adults who are discovering what their minds can do and how their moods affect them. They are often reluctant to accept treatment. Mental health care works best when the person needing help feels engaged and can give the treatment enough time to work.
Now we have additional stigma, which is affecting young adults more than any other group. Because they are young, they can often benefit greatly from treatment. Yet some see the very care that might help them as a neon arrow pointing at a “risky” student.
In our haste to talk about the incredibly small group of young adults, often young men, who have access to guns, who decide to use those guns and, yes, may have mental health problems, we must not forget the very large group of young people who also have mental health problems and will never make those choices.
They live in a time when the options for treatment are expanding and often can be tailored to their needs and their lives. They might find short-term services, medication, traditional therapy or nontraditional approaches suit them best. What we need to do for them is encourage them to find what works for them, not eye them with suspicion.
Congress is considering mental health reform. New approaches for treatment of first-episode psychosis (when patients, usually in their late teens or early 20s, have a first break with reality) have caught public interest. Talking about mental illness can lead to positive changes and shrink the gap between identifying a need and getting care.
It’s unlikely we will stop wondering what drives a young person to become a mass shooter. It’s unlikely we will stop thinking there must be something like a mental illness that made him decide this option was okay. It’s allowing that conversation to stop young people from seeking treatment that worries me.