Year after Newtown shootings, struggle continues to improve mental health care
Posted December 13, 2013
Updated December 15, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — The Lego creations and creative comic strip drawings look like the work of a typical 9-year-old.
But Milo is not a typical 9-year-old boy.
“There’s a level of noise, constant noise in his head, that he can’t turn off and that he has trouble finding peace from,” said his mother, Susan, who did not want to use her last name.
Milo was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and sensory processing disorder. He's extremely bright and articulate, yet explosive.
“One day, he took it out on his blinds (and) bashed in the wall.” Susan said. “He has delusions. He has paranoia.”
She says Milo is often misunderstood, especially at school, because mental illness is hard for others to recognize.
“His disability is an inordinate amount of pain, and it’s so unsympathetic,” his mother said. “He’s not limping. He’s not in a wheelchair.”
As a parent, Susan has sought help from many professionals. She worries about Milo’s future, and she can’t help but think about Adam Lanza, the troubled young man from Newtown, Conn., who a year ago killed his mother before driving to Sandy Hook Elementary School and fatally shooting 26 children and educators. Lanza ultimately turned the gun on himself.
“What am I dealing with? How scared should I be? Who is he relative to a character like Adam Lanza?” Susan said. “Every expert says he’s not a plotter, he’s not diabolical. He’s never going to make plans.”
Days after the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting in Connecticut, then Gov.-elect Pat McCrory spoke to WRAL News about how to prevent a similar tragedy in North Carolina. He said more focus needs to be placed on care for the mentally ill.
But experts say not much has changed.
“I would have hoped for more to be done by now,” said Deby Dihoff, executive director of the North Carolina chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
She said she has seen growth in inpatient hospital beds, but not nearly enough.
“We’ve got about 10 beds per 100,000, and we should have about 50 beds for (a) 100,000 population,” Dihoff said.
She thinks there are good initiatives being planned and discussed, but little has been done.
“It is a slow process, and that is frustrating,” Dihoff said.
One of the efforts underway is to have schools better recognize, assess and accommodate students with mental illness.
“We could be so much further along if we would have put crisis services as a priority, especially for the children who are identified as at-risk in the schools,” said Greta Metcalf, a licensed mental health professional.
Metcalf said she wishes more had been done during the past year. She thinks the governor's initiative on safer schools, which launched this year, is a great step in the right direction.
She's one of two mental health providers on the task force.
“Access to care would be of most importance,” Metcalf said.
Two more initiatives get underway in January, including a new crisis prevention program and a statewide telepsychiatry program to help people in rural communities obtain support. McCrory said he continues to place an emphasis on mental health and keeping schools and communities safe.
Susan writes a blog about parenting a bipolar child. Her hope is that someday soon, there will be a concerted effort to break down the stigma and the fear, which will lead to more understanding and greater compassion.
“The number of people in the education system who are painfully ignorant about pediatric mental illness is profound,” she said.
That’s part of why she often thinks about Lanza. She thinks about “how terrified he must have been, about how isolated and how alone and how afraid. That’s what I want to save my son from – those feelings.”