Private Psychology, Public Policy

When Governor Dannel P. Malloy appointed the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission a year ago, he charged the panel with “taking a broad systemic approach in crafting the recommendations that will lead to comprehensive legislative and policy changes that must occur following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.” He explained that this included “ensuring that our mental health system can reach those that need its help.” Like everyone else who has tried to answer the ultimate 12/14 question — why? — the commissioners are keenly interested in Adam Lanza’s motivation and state of mind as he headed off to the Sandy Hook School that tragic morning. The panel last week secured a promise from the shooter’s father to turn over some of his son’s treatment records. Presumably, this narrow focus on Adam Lanza’s pathology has some relevance to the panel’s “broad systemic approach” to policy recommendations.

We would hate to see the much needed debate on the effective delivery of mental health services get bogged down in parsing Adam Lanza’s personality disorders as antecedents to violence. We understand that the experts on the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission are seeking to use the science of psychology to inform the art of policy, but we have also seen how the particulars of Lanza’s villainy tend to overwhelm the news coverage of larger questions about the adequacy of mental health services, school security, and gun violence. Let us concede that a lot went wrong in this young man’s life. Ultimately, however, it may not be a better understanding of his troubled mind that will be useful in preventing similar horrendous crimes, but a better understanding of his slow, inexorable journey to near-complete isolation that will allow us to help others who go wandering toward violent ends. It’s not that there weren’t red flags in Lanza’s case. It’s that he became so isolated that few people could see them.

The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission last week heard from psychiatric experts from Yale and Stony Brook University, who downplayed Lanza’s profound autism spectrum disorder as a contributing factor to the 12/14 tragedy. They noted that people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome are more like to be victims than perpetrators of crime. They suggested, however, that once social isolation sets in for a child, because of bullying, unusual behaviors, or simply because it is inconvenient or uncomfortable for adults or peers to get involved, it is far more difficult for the mental health system to recognize children in crisis and to respond appropriately.

Ultimately, the policies that best address the failures that led to the tragedy at Sandy Hook School may be same policies that are a hallmark of every successful democracy: inclusion, respect, and consideration for everyone — even those who are different, difficult, and drifting toward isolation and despair.

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