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School shooting and a mother's blog stir a conversation about mental health

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 12:14 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — No one knows why Adam Lanza committed mass murder at a Connecticut elementary school late last week.

But for at least one Idaho mother, news of the gunshot slaying of 20 children and six faculty members stirred her deepest fears about her own 13-year-old son.

"Every time I hear about a mass shooting, I think about my son. And I wonder if someday, I'll be that mom," Liz Long wrote in a blog post titled "I am Adam Lanza's Mother."

The blog post went viral over the weekend, landed the former BYU student on national television and helped frame a debate about mental health in America, part of a conversation that also includes gun control as a nation mourns the deaths of 20 children and the six deceased adults who loved and taught them.

Liz Long said it is unclear what's wrong with her son, who she called "Michael" in the blog post.

"Autism spectrum, ADHD, oppositional defiant or intermediate explosive disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He's been on a slew of anti-psychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work."

And the mother frets aloud about not having any good choices for his care.

Mental health professionals in Utah Monday empathized with Long's family. But were uncomfortable drawing any conclusions about what drove Lanza to shoot and kill his mother, the elementary schoolchildren and six faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Friday morning

While some national reports have speculated about the possible role of mental illness, a marriage therapist who met with Adam Lanza's parents told Associated Press on Monday that the couple's son had been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

The syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder "that begins very early in life and seems to be, by in large, a stable or lifelong trait," said Dr. William McMahon, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry in the University of Utah School of Medicine.

But that diagnosis does not explain why someone would commit an act of mass violence. In fact, there is no research-based data that links autism spectrum disorder to committing violence against others or one's self, McMahon said.

"Children with ASDs, of which Asperger's is one condition, are unlikely to initiate any aggression," McMahon said.

People with the disorder can become frustrated over their inability to communicate effectively and may resort to physical aggression, but people with ASDs are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators, McMahon said. The same holds true for people with mental illness, he said.

Investigators do not yet have a full accounting of the shooter's personal and health history so it is difficult to speculate what led to Friday's events, he said.

"We need to understand this young man's story and we may never know because he's dead and so is his mother," McMahon said.

Dawn Armstrong, assistant director of Valley Mental Health's Carmen B. Pingree Center for Children with Autism, said news accounts of the Lanza home life suggest the shooter's mother, Nancy Lanza, "had a lot on her plate, a lot she was trying to take care of on her own." 

While most parents are compassionate and want the best for their children, they cannot replicate the staffing ratios and structure of therapeutic programs at home, Armstrong said.

As children with ASD come into adolescence and age into young adulthood, deficits in social skills and peer relationships can become more problematic.

"Those on the higher end, they start to realize 'I'm a little different' and their peers are different than them. Sometimes they (the peers) are not kind."

In Utah, most children with ASDs are served in public schools. Enrollment at the Pingree Center is capped at 80 students and is designed for students with more severe behavioral issues, Armstrong said. Some children in public schools receive supplemental services from outside agencies or community resources such as the Utah Parent Center. 

Bonnie Peters, executive director of the Family Support Center, said reports that Lanza was socially isolated raised red flags.

"When you see people shutting down, not reaching out, that's a closed system and that's when I'm really concerned," she said. 

Unfortunately, many families with children with disabilities or mental illness find themselves on their own because of their inability or reticence to access services and stigma of mental illness and developmental disabilties, advocates said. Their children tend to have small social circles, which become smaller yet once they age out of school.

"We need to be cognizant of what is going on and try to be inclusive. That may very well be the word of the week, inclusion," Peters said.

For Liz Long, the struggle continues, only this time her voice is behing heard byond the walls of her home:

"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," she wrote.

"God help me. God help Michael. God help us all."

For help with a crisis, call the 24 hour University Neuropsychiatric Institute Crisis hotline at (801) 587-3000.

Assistance is also available at  http://www.dsamh.utah.gov/crisis.htm

The Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which can provide support to people with mental illness and their family members, can be reached at (801) 323-9900 or www.namiut.org

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company