“There were days I hated for the phone to ring, dreaded coming home from work because I knew full well that as my son grew older, one day the news could come at any time that he had killed himself or others. It was just a matter of time until he graduated from knives to guns.”
This is the agonizing story of Yvette Harper, a Washington, D.C. area public school teacher and parent who internalized the tragic demise of the 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school but also the young man, who killed them and committed suicide. “My son Michael could have been another Adam Lanza because he was headed toward a violent heartbreaking end on a homicidal/suicidal path. “
In light of the Sandy Hook tragedy, some parents like Harper are arguing that discussions about gun control are meaningless unless the focus is also on mental illness. “And that is a condition nobody wants to own and policy makers are running from like people used to run from leprosy,” says Dr. Jan Hutchinson, a board certified child psychiatrist and pediatrician.
Harper adopted her five-year-old son Michael at age five years old and found he was acting out violently from the very beginning. “He would bang his head on the floor, grab his own neck and try to choke himself. He would go on for hours raging, screaming and cursing me. He would swing from saying ‘I am going to stab you, to hollering ‘I want to die.’”
In addition as a regular minister-visitor in the Harper home, I often prayed with Michael who confided in me that he was hearing voices telling him “to do bad things.”
Harper said: “Before I adopted him, he had been kicked out of three other foster homes. At one home, they had to hide all their knives.”
She soon found out that shortly before his adoption he had been admitted to a mental institution in Baltimore, where he had been prescribed a retinue of drugs, including Dexedrine, an amphetamine that is often used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. Because of Michael’s acting out in school, officials demanded that he take the drug or be put out. In addition he was not .mainstreamed with other children, but sent to an alternative school where Harper said he was mixed with much older kids with behavior problems. “Being isolated from the mainstream, it became difficult for him to internalize normal student behavior.”
After each violent outburst, Michael’s medication dosages were increased, but they did not help. As a educator who teaches special education children, a term often used for kids with behavior problems, Harper said she soon understood that her child had been homeless, physically and sexually abused and exposed to drugs in his mother’s womb.“How do you expect a child to act ‘normal’ when they have been exposed to such abuse? For seven years I found no good solutions for him and drugs were no help.”
Virtually by accident, Harper stumbled on a different path for her son. “Money was missing from our home. I called school officials to check Michael’s backpack and they found a knife. My son told me later that he has been carrying the knife around for a week and I also learned he had told others he planned to kill his father and me.”
“This was the last straw. I thought what if Michael had found a gun. Through the internet, I found an all boys boarding school in Missouri. It used different interventions, such as military organization skills, constant therapy with psychiatrists and staff and spiritual guidance. The school guarantees success without drugs. And amazingly Michael, now 14, has not taken drugs for six months, and he is no longer hearing voices, no longer acting belligerently. He is focused, goal-oriented and a happy kid.”
For the first time Harper has high expectations for her son, but she is angry over doctors prescribing Dexedrine for such a prolonged time at such an early age without looking at his biological or environmental conditions which could have led to different interventions. “We took Michael to church, banned his watching violent video games and movies, but we have been living on edge, waiting for the worse. Now we are waiting for the best.”
Dr. Hutchinson said while there is not enough hard evidence to correctly assess the Sandy Hook situation if you look at most of the previous mass shootings involving youth —from the movie theatre in Aurora,CO, to Columbine, to Virginia Tech, the evidence is clear that mental illness was a factor. “There are many mental problems that are not diagnosed properly or treated, which may be associated with dangerous violent behavior.
Hutchinson cautions: “Too many people would rather deal with their children having cancer, heart disease or any kind of life threatening physical malady than having a psychiatric medical diagnosis. It is also difficult to find the proper resources for treatment. We are also stumbling because of the stigma associated with mental problems. We cannot ignore, however, that with proper diagnosis and treatment, most people with these illnesses are stable and productive citizens in our community.
It should be noted that on Friday Dec 14, the same day of the dreadful Sandy Hook massacre, a knife-wielding man slashed and wounded 22 children and one adult outside a primary school in central China as students were arriving for classes Friday, police said. This is only the latest in a series of periodic rampage attacks at Chinese schools and kindergartens.
Chinese authorities know they have more than a “knife issue” and are focusing on their failed mental health system, since most of the attackers have had mental health problems. Maybe that is a lesson to be learned here.