On the morning of December 14, 2012 I closed the door to my office and started to cry as the news of a tragic school shooting in Connecticut blew up my Facebook and Twitter feed. My then 13-year old son “Michael” had been in Intermountain Hospital for two days, placed there against his will after an inexplicable and violent episode of rage he couldn’t remember. After years of struggles, we still didn’t know what was wrong, or how to help him. I was exhausted, sad and afraid. The isolation of living with a child who had a serious, undiagnosed mental illness made me feel like there was no hope for me or my family.

That night, I sat down and wrote my truth. I told about the years of missed diagnoses, medications that didn’t work, costly therapies. I wrote about my worst fears for my son’s future. And as a national tragedy beyond comprehension intersected with my personal sorrow, I called for a conversation about mental health. My cry for help, which I published on my formerly anonymous blog, “The Anarchist Soccer Mom,” was picked up by The Blue Review and republished under the title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” The essay was shared everywhere. Many people wrote me to say, “You told my story! I am Adam Lanza’s mother too!” But a few excoriated me for talking openly about my son’s struggles with mental illness. A year ago today, TBR published Long’s essay, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” which heavily influenced the national debate on school violence, keeping a focus on mental health. This is Long’s reflection, one year later.

One year after the Newtown tragedy, where has that conversation about mental health led us as a nation? The official report about the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School could be summarized in five words: no answers, lots of guns. Lanza’s mental illness was certainly a factor. As the report notes, “the shooter had significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others, even those to whom he should have been close.” Like his mother.

As the one year anniversary of Sandy Hook approached, with yet another school shooting in the news, policy makers were paying more attention to mental health. After meeting with the families of the Sandy Hook victims this week, Vice President Joe Biden, whose initial response to the tragedy was to push for tighter gun control, announced a $100 million increase in funding to help people access mental health services. Half of the money will come from the Affordable Care Act; the other half has been pledged for rural mental health care, which should be welcome news in states like Idaho.

Lots of things have been promised. For example, when the state mental hospitals closed, we were promised community based care. That never happened. The fact is that in December 2013, one year after Newtown, if you or a loved one is in crisis, you still have to call the police. And we continue to use prisons as the new institution to treat our adults and children who have mental illness.

In the past year, I have slowly found my voice as an advocate for children’s mental health. I haven’t done it alone — my son has joined me in calling for an end to stigma, by bravely speaking out about his condition on Nova and in a StoryCorps interview. We were honored to share an award for family advocacy from the Idaho Federation of Families, which my son placed prominently on our piano.

Liza's kids


The author’s four children, together on a fall day in Idaho.

Where is my family a year later? I’ve had quite a bit of time to think about what I wrote.  And I can’t sugar coat it: the consequences of my decision to put my name on my story were devastating to us personally, as we learned firsthand just how harsh the stigma of mental illness can be.

Yet there were also rewards. I researched and wrote a book, The Price of Silence, The book will be released by Hudson Street Press in the fall of 2014.which explores stigma and other barriers to mental health care for children and families as they try to navigate the healthcare system, public schools and the criminal justice system. I also had the opportunity to speak at TEDx San Antonio, where I asked the audience why we never see a picture of a child with mental illness in a grocery store checkout line.

My family has also found some answers. Michael now has a diagnosis — bipolar disorder — and medication that works. I can’t tell you how much this has changed our lives for the better. A year ago, I had almost no hope for my son. Now, we are talking about where he will go to college (he says Harvard or Oxford, but he’s going to have to bring his math grade up just a little bit).

Above all, I’ve learned this year that I am most emphatically not Adam Lanza’s mother. While I still feel a great deal of empathy for Nancy Lanza, who surely loved her son as I love mine, we are different in two important ways. First, by acknowledging the seriousness of my son’s condition, I am empowered to do everything I can to ensure he gets the treatment he needs.

Second, I don’t own guns, and I never will.

Some have speculated that perhaps guns were a way for Nancy Lanza to connect with her son. My son and I share some common interests too: writing, history and Greek mythology. As far as I know, a love of history never killed anyone.

Still, I believe that in the futile search for answers, too many people continue to blame Adam Lanza’s mother, the first victim of the tragedy in Newtown. Emily Miller of the Washington Times is representative of that view. As she explained in her Op Ed piece that followed the release of the official Sandy Hook report, “In the end, we can’t blame lax gun-control laws, access to mental health treatment, prescription drugs or video games for Lanza’s terrible killing spree. We can point to a mother who should have been more aware of how sick her son had become and forced treatment.”

If only it were that easy. Instead, numerous barriers still exist for children and families who need access to mental health care. In 1999, NAMI published a report called “Families on the Brink: The Impact of Ignoring Children with Serious Mental Illness.” Read the NAMI “Families on the Brink” report.That report addressed school shootings in the wake of Columbine: “As we struggle to make the lives of all our children better in the wake of unthinkable school violence, we must not forget our children who have serious mental illnesses and their families who love them.” On December 14, 2012, more than ten years later, we watched again in horror as we witnessed exactly how devastating that impact of untreated mental illness could be to a community — and very little if anything had changed for children and families who needed help.

If 2013 was the year to talk about mental illness, let’s hope that 2014 is finally the year to act.

Marcia Franklin of Idaho Public Television’s “Dialogue,” interviews Liza Long.

See extra footage with Franklin and Long at Idaho Public Television.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • ramrodd

    Mental health is the avenue to gun confiscation..
    would the disarmament begin with anxiety, depression or with parents of children with ADHD….not to forget PMS….the list would be endless!!

    http://fff.org/explore-freedom/article/who-is-mentally-ill/

    • older-woman

      Oh c’mon. I am a country girl who to this day lives in the Northwest in the middle of nowhere, with two revolvers, a case full of rifles, a hunting license, and knowledge that 911 does NOT work here like it works in urban/metro areas. My guns are my tools. My guns are protection from wildlife and humans and provide me my annual supply of elk, deer and turkey meat. Do I want my gun rights threatened? You threaten my very way of life when that chatter occurs. Do I cringe at school and other shootings? You bet. And I truly believe the focus needs to shift from the tools these kids are using to the reason they are using them in the first place. And that reason is rooted in their very mental health. I am old enough to remember when we had mental institutions in this nation, when marijuana/alcohol were present but not the crazy drugs now across our land, when people were not living squeezed next to the next person and when life was not worshiping the dollar as the reason for life. We have progressed. We have so progressed that we have created societies separate from nature, scared of being outside of a city, and using weapons as an ego boost rather than as tools. We have brought children into a dysfunctional society and we cannot see it. We need mental health access and institutions restored. And we need to shift our money to building them rather than building laws that take away the tools but keep the problem.

      • ramrodd

        well older woman.. good luck with anyone printing money to put back together institutions from another day..
        i am no kid myself but its very easy to see that this push is about confiscation and mental health is that avenue..
        so where would you draw the line – where would you begin the confiscation!!
        300,000,000 prescriptions for psychiatric drugs written in 2009 alone..
        Bloomberg is now using the mental health avenue to push his confiscation plan..
        http://www.wnd.com/2013/12/gun-controllers-plan-sneak-attacks/
        our buddy Emily Miller (above post) needs to begin defining mental illness and who she is looking to disarm..
        http://libertycrier.com/the-truth-about-mental-illness-and-guns./

  • I hope you read my oped fully in which I explain that the final report showed that Nancy Lamza never knew her child was violent and capable of what he did, nor did any of the psychiatrists who saw him. His mother could have prevented this only if she was not in denial about what appears to be a psychotic break. I did not blame her fully because I think her maternal instincts to protect her child blinded her to the clues like the wall of mass murder stats.

  • breedum

    Nancy Lanza was killed first to save her the embarrassment (see Ex-Marine Charles Joseph Whitman). He chose Sandy Hook because it was familiar. He killed the kids for the shock factor. Adam Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger’s, OCD, and a social disorder. Asperger’s is not a mental condition but is on the autism spectrum. OCD and a social disorder hardly qualify anyone as a serious mental patient. Adam Lanza planned out the entire massacre with a sound mind. Proof exists with the spreadsheets detailing many mass murderers, their choice of weapons, and the number of kills. His window were blotted out and the contractors made to be quiet because of sensory overloads. Sensory overloads are common with both Asperger’s and OCD. Millions of us struggle just fine and peacefully. Social disorders hardly qualify for anything beyond a mild sedative to ease anxiety. Lanza studied these murderers for more than 2 years, more proof of a sound mind. No laws nor any mental Dr’s would have stopped this tragedy.

    I can relate to Adam Lanza due to having been diagnosed with 3 of the same issues. I actually have 3 more diagnosis on top of Lanza’s. Lanza and I have much in common as far as the social issues and the Asperger’s, and I have also studied mass murderers for many years. The differences are, I researched into the why and have no fascination with the killings.

    Lanza carved out his own style, and much like James Holmes, the number of bodies was just as important as the shock value. He figured if he made it through 2 classrooms, his body count would be the highest. However, thankfully, many of these kids fled out of classrooms 9 and 10 as the shooting began. Lanza also felt like the community would forgive him in the end (see Lanza reading of Amish Grace). We should never forgive nor ever forget.

    • nomckmamanow

      Asperger’s and Autism are BOTH considered a MENTAL illness. The DSM V, the new version of the book that pyschiatrists use to diagnose and get diagnosis codes, has both of those disorders as a mental illness. Do your research before you assume it’s not a mental illness. It is and it was also noted in the previous version of the book the DSM IV.

      • breedum

        Sorry but I asperges which I am diagnosed with is on the autism spectrum

        • nomckmamanow

          Yes, it’s on the autism spectrum, but go to your library and look at a DSM V. The autism spectrum disorders are in there and qualify them as a mental illness. That’s what that book is for! It’s for psychiatrists and other mental health professional to have the appropriate mental health diagnosis codes which come from that book. I am sorry if you are just now learning this.

  • Denise Kline

    I have a son with Aspergers Syndrome, depression and anxiety. I have a mother and a sister who are bi-polar if not paranoid schizophrenic. Both of them see and hear things others do not. None of us can find good reliable care. Psychiatrists now see patients for 15 minutes, prescribe meds, and send you off with referrals to psychologists and others. That is if you are lucky enough to find one that A) takes your insurance and B) is qualified to help you C) exists at all in a 50 mile radius and does not have some reason the can not take your case! Our situation is going to continue to escalate in terms of violence unless and until we begin to treat mental illness like cancer or heart disease of a traumatic injury. We MUST open up the dialog to stop the stigma and require insurance to cover and treat mental illness like any other disease. I applaud Liza for coming out with her admission and story. I hope Liza continues to advocate and in fact I would like to join her. Please contact me so that I can assist.

  • Joann Strunk

    I would like to thank Ms. Long for coming forward with her story. Of course some people are going to feel that it is not ok for her to tell her story although it is the truth of her journey. Some still feel that mental illness is a shameful thing and that we (I have a child with mental illness too) should just shut up and go away. And that very attitude likely influenced Adam Lanza’s mom’s decision to isolate and try to cope on her own. There are thousands of us out there…trying to cope the best we can in a fragmented system with little or no help. Thank you Ms. Long for helping start the conservation. I am so happy that your son has found some effective treatment and is doing well. This should be possible for every child, and adult, suffering from one of these horrible diseases.

  • As a fellow mom of a teen with severe mental illness (schizophrenia) and an advocate, I’m glad you have followed up with this story. I have to admit, I was appalled at first by your initial blog post because, to me, it read as shame and disgust at your child. It it difficult to separate the child from the illness, particularly in the midst of crisis.

    My son and I have been blogging his story using our real names since 2009. We both feel it is important that mental illness have a real face. I’m happy to see you both out of the shadows as well.

    Chrisa Hickey
    http://www.themindstorm.net

  • nomckmamanow

    I read your first article and was rather appalled with what you had written. I have an 11-year old son who has mental illness and I also have mental illness, Bipolar Disorder. I am glad you went back and wrote this because I first thought you were disgusted at your child. This does clear some things up for me, but I will say now that taking guns away isn’t going to solve any problem. We need to start treating mental illness like an illness and not like the plague. There should be no shame in it, ever!

    Yes, I am an advocate for gun control to an extent. We do not own guns, but have friends that do. If our situation were different we may own a gun for recreational purposes only, but with our son there’s no way we would take that risk.

    Let’s advocate and take steps to improve the situation. The way things are going now and with all the media hype about mental illness, it just drives it further into the ground and then those that have these illnesses are forced to take shame again.

  • Pamela Valemont

    I have just seen a picture on the Internet of Adam Lanza at one year of age or possibly
    younger, playing with a live gun, surrounded by an arsenal of weapons. His
    Dad now says he wishes he had never been born. I am sure Adam also wishes
    this now, in retrospect, that he had never been born, certainly not into
    that family. They, the crazy gun culture of America to which they ascribed
    and contributed, combined with the absence of tight gun laws in the USA
    are entirely responsible for this incredibly cruel tragedy. There is no
    test that can safeguard the community against such a crazed gunman, and no
    way of knowing when they will strike, where, or at whom.

    Adam Lanza and the Newtown Massacre ebook

    http://www.lulu.com/shop/pamela-lillian-valemont/adam-lanza-and-the-newtown-massacre/ebook/product-21281329.html

  • Nancy Moore

    Dear Liza,
    I saw you today on the Nova program about rampage killers. I just had a sense that I should contact you. I do hope that you read this.
    As the Nova program was playing, I googled “nutritional deficiencies and murderers”.
    There are two articles that came up which you might be interested in:
    The Results Project
    Violent Behavior: A Solution in Plain Sight
    They might provide some help for your son. In the first article, there is a description of the incredible results that Dr. Walsh obtained in treating violent individuals. I only skimmed through the second article, but I could see that it had valuable information. In your article above, I did see that your son is on medication for bipolar disorder, but please at least read these articles and consider the possibility that your son is lacking certain nutrients.
    Nutrition is a subject that I have studied throughout my life as my mom raised my family with that awareness and the importance of supplementation. Recently, I have studied about the trace mineral iodine and starting taking nascent iodine drops, about 5 mg a day, which has helped energy levels tremendously for me as well as my family. My brother is mentally ill (schizophrenic). Decades ago, Dr. Hoffer treated schizophrenic patients and found a connection between the thyroid and this condition. He was able to help many of them by treating their thyroid. Iodine is very important for the thyroid gland. It’s also interesting that low thyroid runs in my family. It’s like pieces of a puzzle fitting together. I hope that my brother will start taking the iodine supplement and that his condition will improve. Iodine deficiency has actually been a major problem for most people in the last few decades, according to many articles. Consider this for your son as well.
    Since you are a musician, I’d like to make a side note that I have my B.A. degree in music (voice).
    God bless you and I hope that this information is valuable to you.

  • Nancy Moore

    Dear Liza,
    This is in reference to my previous post below.
    It would be best to google “nutritional deficiencies and murderers”. Then, click on “The Results Project” website to be led to the correct article concerning Dr. Walsh and his work. In the same google search results, you can see the “Violent Behavior” article as well.