28 Lives Lost

I’m writing here about the tragedy in Newtown, but reluctantly. A big part of me doesn't want to move beyond the strong emotions I felt in response to the incomprehensible loss of life that occurred on December 14th, 2012. There are truly no words for the unimaginable sorrow and loss of those whose loved ones died on that day...this is one of those times when that expression about words being insufficient is really true.

Yet, for those of us who were not directly affected by the tragedy, the shock and sadness begins to fade after a week or two, as our focus shifts back to our familiar lives...the holidays, our work, our own families, our daily concerns. The empathy elicited by the now-familiar faces of the 20 children and seven adults who died simply isn’t as strong, further dulled by the mass of details, the intellectualizing, the calls for action.  And here I am, reluctantly contributing to the voluminous post-tragedy commentary. Maybe I have something to say that hasn’t already been said.

Wasn't it six adults who died in Newtown? No, it was seven, if one includes Nancy Lanza, the mother of Adam, the shooter.  Adam’s mom has come in for some post-mortem demonization for (apparently) facilitating her son’s fascination with guns and proficiency in using them. We don’t (and may never) have the details on how Nancy went about trying to help Adam and whether any of the help was helpful. But, safe in the knowledge that Parents do well if they can, I’m going to operate on the assumption that Nancy did the best she could with Adam and that she, over time, like so many parents of so many behaviorally challenging kids, simply wasn’t exactly sure where to turn to get him the help he badly needed, perhaps unconvinced that the help would be helpful, and uncertain about how to get her 20-year old son out of that basement in which he reportedly spent so much time playing violent video games.

Actually, there were eight adults whose lives ended on that day. The eighth was Adam, age 20, who ended his own life. Though much is being written about Adam (he’s been demonized as well, though not much), I don’t know what aspects of what I’m reading are actually true. But I do know that Kids do well if they can…and I know that kids who exhibit challenging behaviors (violence included) are lacking certain crucial skills. From what I can gather, Adam appears to have been lacking some very significant social skills. And, apparently, those lagging skills made it extremely and increasingly difficult for Adam to engage in social interactions. For him, that seems to have contributed to a very isolated, disconnected social existence. Perhaps fueled by those video games, at some point he began thinking about hurting himself and others. It’s not clear if anyone knew about those thoughts, but at some point the thoughts became stronger than Adam’s capacities for empathy, for taking another’s perspective, and for appreciating the impact of his behavior on others. And on December 14th, he acted on those thoughts.   

I, like most folks who work with behaviorally challenging kids, have come to know a lot of kids like Adam over the course of my career. I’ve met many of them in my outpatient practice…others in the schools, inpatient units, residential facilities, and prisons in which I’ve consulted. None were pleased to be lacking social skills, though some possessed other skills and/or received help that made it possible for them to make connections with people or feel a sense of belonging. Some were violent, though none were delighted about that either.

What are the most important take-home messages that have emerged following this tragedy? First and foremost: this problem -- preventing similar tragedies from happening -- isn’t going to be easy to solve…and we have to redouble our efforts to solve it anyway. Second, solving it will require the collaborative efforts of many: political leaders, law enforcement and mental health professionals, educators, parents, and the pro- and anti-gun advocates. A reminder: solving problems collaboratively means gathering information and hearing about and understanding concerns first…solutions come after that.

Some additional take-home messages: 

- There are many parents of behaviorally challenging/socially isolated/alienated kids who badly want help and can’t find it or give up because the help wasn’t helpful. Finding ways to make the help more accessible and beneficial needs to be a national priority.

- Psychiatric diagnoses, autism spectrum disorders included, are not a predictor of mass killings. But there are kids (and adults) who, due to a variety of identifiable factors, become socially isolated, disconnected, alienated, and frustrated, and who come to contemplate killing themselves, others, or both. I don’t want to oversimplify things, but if we want to do a better job of identifying and helping them, we need to be far less focused on behaviors and categories and diagnoses and far more focused on lagging skills and unsolved problems. Unless we're resigned ourselves to a certain number of inevitable deaths every year due to mass shootings -- kind of like saying that a certain number of people will die in tornadoes every year -- then predicting who is at risk for committing these shootings needs to be a national priority, too, similar to the effort that has been devoted to identifying those at risk for committing acts of terror.

- The best predictor of such actions is knowledge of what’s going on inside a kid’s head. And now we come to what is probably the hardest part of solving the problem. We’re told that sometimes trying too hard to gather that information can precipitate violent acts (CLICK HERE). I think it depends a lot on how we go about doing it and when we start. We’re told that some kids aren’t going to tell you what’s going on in there no matter how hard you try. True enough, but not as true as it seems. Again, I think it depends a lot on how we go about doing it and when we start.  I’m thinking the Empathy step of Plan B – described in many places on this website – can be very helpful along those lines. We need more people – parents, educators, mental health clinicians, staff members – who are proficient in its use. Some kids will still slip through the cracks. Fewer hopefully.

- Living in a free society makes prevention more difficult. Yes, true, but I talked about this on one of my recent radio programs. There are lots of examples of freedoms we’ve compromised in our society in the interests of the common good. I don’t have the right to carry whatever I want onto an airplane or into a professional baseball game. I don’t have the right to drive as fast as I want on the Maine Turnpike. I don’t have the right to drive intoxicated. I’m willing to forego my right to own an assault rifle and a 100-bullet clip. And I’m willing to forego, on behalf of my kids and those who are more vulnerable to losing their empathy, the right to own video games in which people are killing each other. My son is downstairs playing Madden 2013 as I write this, fantasizing about being a professional football player or coach someday, and I consider myself lucky: it wouldn’t be tragic if one of those outcomes actually occurred. I don’t, for a minute, take my good luck for granted.

Which brings us back to that awful day in Newtown, and its aftermath. I'm sorry my empathy for those who perished and for their loved ones isn't quite as strong as it was 12 days ago. Here again, though, I'm lucky: I'm still feeling empathy. I don’t, for a minute, take that good luck for granted either. 

Here at Lives in the Balance, we’ll find ways to commemorate the lives of the children and adults who died in Newtown as we continue our efforts to help others better understand and be more empathic and compassionate toward behaviorally challenging kids and their caregivers...and to ensure they get the help they need...because there is no more poignant reminder that there truly are lives in the balance.  And if you'd like to support the efforts of those affected by this tragedy in a more direct manner, CLICK HERE.

Ross Greene
December 26, 2012