We have yet to learn all the details of what led to the shooting deaths of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, Conn. However one thing is clear: this was the act of a deranged young man.
Police are now trying to find out what specific mental conditions Lanza was diagnosed with, if any, and what medications he might have been taking. However, even if he was diagnosed and being treated for mental illness, certainly not enough was being done to help him.
A person who reportedly babysat for Adam Lanza said Lanza's own mother told the babysitter never to let Adam out of sight because there was no telling what he might do. One would assume this statement indicates Lanza's mother was keenly aware of her son's fragile mental condition.
But what type of help did she seek for him and what type was even available?
At this point in history, the type of mental health professionals available to most people are social workers or nurses. Insurance companies often do not adequately pay for mental health care. For example, a typical insurer might cover a session with a counselor for one hour, once a week for a period of three months. Beyond that, the patient is expected to pay out of pocket, which is unrealistic for most patients.
Furthermore, many mental health clinicians are not trained to deal with severe cases of mental illness. People like Lanza need a board-certified psychiatrist, not a counselor. Perhaps one of the most sensitive subjects regarding mental health issues is that of involuntary confinement to an in-patient psychiatric hospital. These days it is very difficult to commit a person to such a facility if that patient hasn't committed a crime.
Oftentimes parents of disturbed children courageously come forward to police or mental health professionals with their concerns that their child will harm himself or others. Those parents are routinely turned away and told that there is nothing that can be done based simply on the supposition that something tragic might happen. There has to be evidence that person is violent, not just a suspicion, for that person to receive the help he or she needs.
This is a dramatic shift from just decades ago, when doctors and family members regularly committed people to inpatient mental health hospitals against their will. However, that process was grossly abused and innocent people were being locked-up in insane asylums.
Now the pendulum has swung far into the other direction into territory in which it is nearly impossible for family members or doctors to have obviously dangerous, disturbed people committed to mental hospitals.
Just think about some of the most notorious mass shootings: Virginia Tech, Tuscon, the Colorado movie theater. In all of those cases just about everyone who knew the shooter knew he was deeply disturbed and capable of horrendous violence. But our laws were too restrictive and the mental health services offered were too pitiful.
Psychiatrists have been trying to take meaningful action to revise America's mental health system, which is broken. Hopefully, this tragedy will be the catalyst to begin such critically needed change.