Political Animal


December 17, 2012 11:19 AM Parenting a Disturbed Child

By Ryan Cooper

Gawker has a bloodcurdling piece on what it’s like to raise a kid with Bond villain-levels of problems:

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.
A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7- and 9-year-old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

And, of course, there are few options for outside help save the criminal justice system:

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “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. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise—in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population.
With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill—Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.

Mistreatment and neglect of the mentally ill is no new thing in American history, but on the other hand our mass incarceration has gotten so out of hand even conservatives have been turning against it for cost reasons. Perhaps if we could get our incarceration numbers down, we could repurpose some of that money for mental health.


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • R O'Reilly on December 17, 2012 12:00 PM:

  • kevo on December 17, 2012 12:06 PM:

    This does bring to bear yet another tragic reality in the nation we like to call American the Beautiful! -Kevo

  • Josef K on December 17, 2012 12:16 PM:

    Perhaps if we could get our incarceration numbers down, we could repurpose some of that money for mental health.

    That would imply conservatives actually give a damn about anyone outside their corporate paymasters and cronies. I'll believe it when I see it.

  • rrk1 on December 17, 2012 12:22 PM:

    Aside from looking for and assuming there are magic-bullet answers to complex social problems, the answer of choice in our benighted country is all too often to criminalize the problem. Homelessness, mental illness, unruly teenagers, drug use, you name it, lock them up. Forget about them. Out of sight, out of mind.

  • c u n d gulag on December 17, 2012 12:23 PM:

    And I’m sure the NRA and the gun companies it represents would be happy to sell that troubled young man any number of guns, and any number of bullets

    Better yet, sell his family on the idea of carrying guns. You know – just in case he acts up. Why should his siblings run to the car and lock themselves in every time he acts up? They’re not old enough to drive. But they sure look old enough to the NRA to ‘lock-and-load.’

  • mmm on December 17, 2012 12:32 PM:

    I'm not sure of this, but I think a lot of funding for mental illness facilities was turned over to states during the Reagan years. I know there were several changes in IL during that time.

  • gratuitous on December 17, 2012 12:45 PM:

    Well, we'd like to help mentally ill boys and girls, and get them appropriate treatment and help, but we as a society have decided that it's far more important to wage elective wars, occupy other countries, and keep the tax rate artificially low on people like Donald Trump and Mitt Romney.

    So, in the meantime, we get to continue instructing our children to fear (and eventually hate) their siblings, and dash out to the car and lock the doors as protection against their rages. Sure, we could pay for treatment centers and mental health professionals, but think of the millionaires!

  • schtick on December 17, 2012 1:06 PM:

    Ah yes. Good ol' Saint Ronnie promoted shutting the doors on mental facilities and in our area they were turned into prisons. Better yet, they built even more prisons on the land the state owned.
    On the dark side, I think most of those released from the mental facilities joined the teapub party and that's why we have such right wing wackos in government never-mind the millionaires trying to run (or is that ruin?) the country.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on December 17, 2012 1:08 PM:

    Oh the prison-industrial complex ain't goin' nowhere anytime soon, at least in some parts of the good ole U.S. of A.

    In my little hometown in NC, I was shocked to see this past Thanksgiving that the city had thrown up a new jail facility. Evidently the feds came in and told them that overcrowded jails were unacceptable. So instead of re-assessing who really needs to be in jail and who doesn't, they built a new jail to house all the inmates. Really!!!

    Of course it is a complex damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you don't kind of issue. But if we've got money lying around to build newer, larger prisons, then maybe we have resources for programs to keep people out of jail to begin with. Maybe...

  • Al on December 17, 2012 1:09 PM:

    "Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books."

    He doesn't have a mentally ill kid, he has a FOCKING PSYCHOPATH on his hands.

    Wanna bet that kid if left free will commit a massacre anyday, WITH OR WITHOUT GUNS?

    Jesus H Christ, if I had 3 kids and one was acting like this, I believe is triage.


    Prefer to pay the loony bin bills than have a young Michael Myers posing a threat to my other kids and my wife.

  • jjm on December 17, 2012 1:37 PM:

    We generally get no detailed psychological profile either of the shooters or of their families.

    Something has clearly gone wrong inside the family, and the fact that a parent is often a target screams for a psychoanalytic probe. But no, people are left to imagine that this fellow's mother (where is the father, by the way?) or Adam Lanza's mother were sweet and perfect and doting mothers. What is it that we aren't seeing? What about Jared Loughner's parents, knowing that he might be loading weapons into his car and not confronting him?

    Children often feel called to act out their parents' deepest but absolutely disavowed wishes. We need FAMILY MENTAL HEALTH clinics, and they need to be cheap and plentiful and locally available.

  • dalloway on December 17, 2012 2:05 PM:

    How about this? Slap a 500% tax on guns and ammunition and dedicate the revenue solely to mental health treatment. Call it the Massacre Prevention Act.

  • ruviana on December 17, 2012 3:24 PM:

    So here I am defending the author of the "I am Adam Lanza's Mother" piece. Find out about her for yourself. She blogs at Anarchist Soccer Mom, about her life as a working single mom after what sounds like a moderately nasty divorce. If you go there now, you can see that she and the other blogger cited in the Gawker link above have both issued a joint statement that each has posted on her own blog, essentially agreeing not to pursue a "mommy war."

    After I read the original blog entry, I read ALL of Anarchist Soccer Mom's entries and the ones that Sarah finds icky and mean struck me as quite funny. I've read similar on dozens of mommyblogs and in various memoirs. And that original entry rings very true to me. There are any number of books written by parents who dealt or are dealing with similar things. I hope Al never deals with a mentally ill relative. It's easy to judge from the safety of a computer screen. It's different in person.

  • Bruce on December 17, 2012 3:39 PM:

    American mental health service systems are indeed underfunded. So is research into effective treatments for disorders like Michael's (and Adam's), which have yet to be identified.
    It strikes me that Michael's mom did the right thing -- gathering up the household sharps, regardless of the inconvenience and the thought that in a better world, she shouldn't be required to forgo them. Had only Adam's mom, and our nation, acted similarly with our personal arsenels.
    Oh, one other thought, if I may. Research indicates that people with mental illness -- as many as one in four adults, according to Mental Health America -- are no more likely to commit violent crimes than those without. Most I've known were gentle and thoughtful, and fortunate to be involved in effective recovery-oriented service programs at modest cost to their communities.

  • paul on December 17, 2012 7:55 PM:

    Perhaps if we were spending adequately on mental health it would be easier to get our incarceration numbers down.

  • beckya57 on December 17, 2012 9:56 PM:

    Welcome to my world. I work in child psychiatry. I see stuff like this person describes all the time. And no, there isn't anything approaching adequate resources for these families. Most of these children will either end up in the correctional system or in the revolving door between psych hospitals, community mental health centers and homelessness.