One year after Sandy Hook: Behavior cues of mentally ill

Nancy Lanza knew her son needed help. Part one of a two-part series.

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took place one year ago claimed the lives of 20 young children and seven adults. 

One year later, my heart still goes out to the families, friends, students, teachers and first responders who were there. One year later, we’re still working to find out how this could have happened. Some people say it is due to lax gun control, others say it is mental illness; some blame it on bad parenting and divorce, while others say it was the media’s influence or violent video games.

They are all right.

"Savvy street cops need only a glance at Adam Lanza’s photograph to know he was a seriously disturbed young man," wrote PoliceOne Columnist Dick Fairburn in his column marking the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre. (AP Photo)

No One Cause for Violence
As I have listened to the dozens of reports, read many articles and tried to put it all together, even without being there, I knew that the stories would all end up where they always do — the behavioral cues were all there. When I listen to the experts begin to reveal what they have discovered forensically, it has become all too clear what was going on in the mind of Adam Lanza. 

Nancy Lanza, Adam’s mother, was obviously doing what she thought was the best for her son. She began to seek out psychological counseling for him and was even considering having him “committed,” according to a close family friend. 

In a horribly ironic turn, she thought learning how to shoot with him would be a way to have more in common with him and enhance their relationship. However, it is my opinion that she was gradually overwhelmed by Adam. 

A Mother’s Nightmare
In a blog titled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” Liza Long went into painful detail about what is occurring in her life with her young son and the violence he has inflicted upon her. When I worked in the Crisis Management Unit for the San Jose Police Department, I talked to countless families like that about a loved one with mental illness who was showing an inclination towards violence. 

They would all ask me what they could do. They had all called the police departments in their respective jurisdictions and were all given the same response — their family member hasn’t committed a crime yet, so there is nothing we can do. 

One thing is abundantly clear about all of these situations is the palpable fear that people exude when I talk to them. They would lock their bedroom doors at night or change the locks on their residence, for fear that the loved one would enter and cause harm. 

I would be interested to know whether Nancy Lanza locked her bedroom door at night, or was she confident that her son would not be violent?

No Man in the House
Mrs. Lanza was clearly concerned about Adam, but either couldn’t or wouldn’t admit how concerned she was. After all, this was her son, a son whom she had raised and was dedicated to even through a divorce. How could he be violent? 

None of us wants to think of our child being mentally ill, let alone becoming violent due to a mental illness. Mrs. Lanza was facing all of these things. What makes matters worse is there was no longer anyone around strong enough to control Adam.  

Having Adam’s father, uncle, or brother around would have enabled her to exert more control over Adam, even physically if necessary. A lot of people might still be alive today if one of the men in the family still lived in the house with Adam and Nancy.

I have seen it innumerable times when a small female parent tries to control her full-grown son. It becomes a relationship of power — not only mental, but physical as well. Typically the mother loses this confrontation.

Command Hallucinations
With many of the cases I have studied and consulted on, when you start examining the potential for violence related to “command hallucinations” — someone or something such as God, Martians, or Satan “telling” the individual what to do — and delusions, then you have a huge problem. 

•    James Holmes: Batman told him to attack the theater in Aurora, Colorado 
•    Aaron Bassler: Martians commanded him to kill people in Northern California

According to their fixed false belief system, they fully believed that they were being told by the command hallucinations to kill, bomb, rob, or attack innocent people. There is nothing that can dissuade them from obeying these internal voices unless law enforcement intervenes. But how can law enforcement intervene if they are not made fully aware of the issues and concerns? 

The answer is simple: they can’t. Many law enforcement agencies don’t have the resources to investigate the “potential for violence,” unless they have a dedicated staff or officers who are trained in Crisis Intervention Techniques (CIT). 

Most agencies need the assistance of professionals from the county mental health departments or organizations such as the National Alliance for Mentally Ill (NAMI). Regardless, it takes the cooperation of many such agencies to establish contact and then attempt to assist the families when they can. 

Community Action Plan
The only way to help is to have an action plan, where you already are made aware of the individual’s behaviors by a community psychology case. It starts in the community where the individual lives and encompasses the entire “psychological community.” 

The list of participants includes family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, law enforcement, mental health professionals, classmates, roommates, clergy, and other contacts.

When all these people are interviewed after a violent tragedy involving a severely mentally ill person, they all reflect: “Well, there was something that I thought was strange, but that doesn’t mean he was violent...” 

I couldn’t agree more — until you start to conduct an in-depth psychological investigation to determine the mental health of the individual. When a systematic investigation is conducted of the aforementioned people, you can begin to assemble a report on the potential for violence.

Mental Health Help Needed
What I find interesting is that we thus far have not heard any official mental health diagnosis for Adam. Speculation remains that he was on the autism spectrum and possibly had a personality disorder. 

Regardless of his diagnosis, it was clear that there was mental instability. Adam was beginning to act on those thoughts and emotions, and his behavior was becoming increasingly unpredictable. Still, it is hard to imagine a person making a transition from mental illness to killing others, especially children. 

Generally, people know that few people suffering from mental illness are dangerous. However, when those few meet certain criteria, they are extremely dangerous. Some of the biggest warning signs are a refusal to take medication, coupled with self-medicating using street drugs and a sense of paranoia.

To the complete horror of many families, the only way to get their loved one help is to have them arrested. I find this to be disturbing. It is confounding to think that the most advanced nation in the world cannot find a way to assist those in need of mental health treatment short of arresting them. 

Unfortunately the arrest must be precipitated by a crime of some kind. All too often the crime that has been committed is the key to getting mental health care — at the county jail. Is the system upside down? You bet it is! 

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