Editor’s note: The following article was written by a GoodTherapy.org contributor who, out of respect for family privacy, wishes to remain anonymous. It includes recollections and perspectives that some people may have emotional responses to. Any views or opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org.
My brother is my best friend. As children, we stayed up all night digging for dinosaur bones and hunting for salamanders. When I broke my foot hiking, he carried me back to our campsite and did not leave my side. As an adult, he’s sped to my house in the middle of the night when there was a prowler in my yard, helped me move, shown up to hug me every time a pet has died, and recommended an endless list of adventures. He once attempted to donate a kidney to a stranger, and he regularly bankrupts himself to give money to the homeless, to friends, to random strangers he meets. He has run across an eight-lane highway to move a turtle out of the road, and he moves ant hills to what he calls “more ecologically appropriate locations” rather than kill the ants. He doesn’t mind that they sting him as he moves them. He feels empathy more deeply than anyone I have ever known.
But when news of the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, broke, all I could think about was the day my parents found my brother’s collection of assault weapons when he was 12. My brother doesn’t feel just empathy deeply; he also feels rage, and for most of my life, my brother has terrified me. His anger is as unpredictable and deeply felt as his compassion. When he was 2, he started pounding his head daily in fits of rage until he knocked himself unconscious. At 3, he broke a glass jar over my mom’s head while she was napping. He was arrested for making terroristic threats to classmates at age 7, still so small that the police could not fit handcuffs around his tiny wrists. He could not understand why he was being arrested; to him, it was shocking that anyone could think he was dangerous. “I just get mad sometimes,” he told me.
I will never forget the day my parents put locks on the outside of his bedroom door after he chased me around the house with a butcher knife. I remember his pained cries as he sobbed, “But I’m sorry! I don’t know why I did it! I love sissy so much! Please let me out! I’ll do better!” My parents frequently had to choose between my brother’s well-being and mine.
My parents are the kind of loving, nurturing, thoughtful people who only a relative few are lucky to call their caregivers. They read parenting books and took the advice to heart. My dad was involved and supportive; my mother quit her job in mental health so she could stay home and provide round-the-clock care to my brother. They did not cause him to be the way he is, and he did not choose it.
He has spent the majority of his adult life in jails and prisons across the United States. It’s always the same story: He does something horrifying, gets arrested, and then becomes the prison messiah—teaching people to read, helping people talk through conflicts, writing inspirational essays, starting prison pen-pal programs. The guards never believe he’s the violent person his rap sheet indicates until he snaps and tries to start a prison riot. Eventually, he’s released and subsequently cannot get a job, a student loan, or any other sliver of hope because of his criminal record. And it’s back to crime again.
My brother, like many other children, is severely mentally ill. Mental illness does not, in and of itself, cause violence. But children who do not get the treatment they need, who are repeatedly traumatized and retraumatized at the hands of poor psychiatric care and the criminal justice system, do sometimes turn violent. My brother’s list of diagnoses is as long as his rap sheet: intermittent explosive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), oppositional defiance, bipolar, traumatic brain injury. He could have all, any, or none of these. I don’t know because his involvement with the mental health system has been so chaotic and so profoundly unhelpful.
His first therapist told my parents they should give up. The next one said she couldn’t find anything wrong with him. A psychiatrist prescribed him medication that gave him seizures, then told my parents, “Well, it’s better than stabbing his sister, isn’t it?” Another psychologist would not hospitalize him because he was neither psychotic nor suicidal. Many treatment providers told my parents that if only they would discipline him more, read more parenting books, or raise his self-esteem, he would somehow get better.
He has been in countless psychiatric hospitals. They discharge him when he’s “stable,” and my brother is almost always stable—except, of course, when he’s threatening to kill a member of my family—so normal measures of psychiatric stability do not work with him. He’s been to four different residential treatment programs and has escaped from all of them. I will never forget the look of terror on my parents’ faces when they got the call telling them that my 12-year-old brother had escaped from treatment and was hitchhiking to Canada.
My parents are fortunate enough to have health insurance and money, and they exhausted their resources with my brother. They recognized his problems, and he was in treatment at the age of 2. But there were no viable options available; the choice was always between regular therapy, which was insufficient for a child with problems as severe as my brother’s, and residential treatment, which often resulted in abuse from other residents and never taught him how to function in a world that is, to him, overwhelming. My brother needed daily services, a comprehensive treatment plan, and treatment providers who could help him build upon his strengths. My parents needed a break. We all needed to feel safe. His 29 therapists, seven psychiatrists, five psychiatric hospitals, four residential treatment programs, three probation officers, and nine attorneys never managed to give my brother anything approaching the help he needed.
It is easy to give lip service to the importance of mental health care when there is a national tragedy. But the truth is that the kind of care that people like my brother need is expensive and extensive. These kids’ parents need help and support that they cannot currently get because their children are so unmanageable. We’re often eager to lock up perpetrators of violent horrors, but when someone hasn’t yet committed an unspeakable act, we’re not willing to intervene before it’s too late. No matter how frequently we tell schoolchildren to report violent classmates to teachers, guidance counselors, or parents, nothing will change so long as there are no effective treatment options for the children who are reported.
My brother is not a sociopath. He is not disposable, even though I have spent most of my life dreading what seemed like the inevitable: sitting in court as he awaited a death sentence. He was an extraordinarily difficult kid, but we can’t throw children away. There’s nowhere to throw them. And waiting until they do something that warrants involvement with the criminal justice system means waiting until they hurt someone. Even if we, as a society, are completely unwilling to extend empathy to violent children or to their families, the cost of waiting until they do something worthy of incarceration is much too high.
My brother is out of jail again, but this time it’s different. We have hope. In a strange twist of fate, that’s because something horrible happened last year: He pulled a gun on his girlfriend. After several months in jail, a judge who I will always remember as saintly was assigned his case. The judge, the prosecutor, and my brother’s attorney finally recognized what no one in the criminal justice system had before: He needed help. And because he was under the control of the justice system, they could mandate that he got the help he needed. He underwent intensive daily therapy. He was required to develop a plan for his life. And, after serving his sentence, he was released to a mental health court program and required to live in a halfway house with round-the-clock supervision, multiple hours of therapy, life-skills training, and mandatory medication. He’s taking classes that teach him how to manage anger, frustration, and anxiety. And with every step of the program he completes, he gets a little more freedom. Escaping is not an option for him this time because escaping means going back to jail. My brother, I am quite certain, will kill himself if he has to go back to jail.
The list of treatments he’s receiving is exhaustive, but it’s working because the program keeps him and other people safe and his therapists treat his condition as the serious, ongoing issue it is. But his treatment team also shows him the same kind of empathy that he has so frequently shown others. They know that he is good, that he needs help, that he can offer something to this world. He will have to struggle to find employment for the rest of his life because of his criminal record, and he will always carry the stigma of mental illness. But each day, he seems more at peace with this.
I’m not afraid of my brother anymore. But I am afraid for the many children like him who are not getting the help they need, who might grow up to serve a life sentence or who might grow up to be the next school shooter. My brother’s experience is evidence that treatment works. But in my state, the kind of treatment he has gotten is available only to people in the criminal justice system. This is a crime against our society because, in order to enter the criminal justice system, a person has to do harm. We should not wait for ticking time bombs like my brother to explode. By then, it may be too late, and these children may be so damaged that the damage cannot be undone. It’s fair for my brother to have gone to jail for the things he has done. But it’s not fair that he was unable to get help for an illness he did not want and did not cause for the first 26 years of his life. It is not fair that other people have had to suffer because the sort of comprehensive treatment he needed was unavailable.
Good mental health care is costly, but I know that my brother’s life is worth it. And even if it isn’t, even if my brother is unworthy of redemption and help, the cost to society of people like him is too great to refuse them help. I do not know if Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who changed Newtown forever, was mentally ill, and I do not know why he decided to brutally murder innocent children. But I do know that fostering real community, real responsibility, and real dedication to helping people like him works, and I know that it is time to stop talking and start doing.
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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.