Tim Steller: Parents of the mentally ill are often in denial

2013-03-31T00:00:00Z 2013-03-31T20:03:01Z Tim Steller: Parents of the mentally ill are often in denialTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 31, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Reports released last week show that Jared Lee Loughner's parents remained in denial about their son's mental condition up until Jan. 8, 2011, when he shot 19 people.

That doesn't make Amy and Randy Loughner culpable - it makes them typical.

Parents of mentally ill kids have a terrible time facing their loved ones' scary decline as it hits, often in the child's late teens or early 20s.

Stigma and ignorance combine to blind parents, who may hope their young adult's strange behavior is a stage that will pass. And once they're able to see the problem, there's still the difficult question of what to do about it.

"Parenting is very difficult even when you have fabulous kids," Tucsonan Betty Seery told me Friday. "But when you have a troubled kid, and you don't have a clue what to do."

Seery has been there. In 1997, her son Kevin moved back home at age 21, and she and her husband saw quickly that he was behaving strangely, staying up all night, talking to himself.

"We were starting to suspect drugs. I think that's what every parent thinks when they start seeing strange behavior in their kids," said Seery, who teaches the Family-to-Family Education Program through the National Alliance on Mental Illness Southern Arizona.

"One night, we sat down to do what we thought was a drug intervention. At that point, he started recounting terrible things that had happened to him, like people in California taking out his brain. My husband and I started looking at each other - like 'uh-oh, this isn't drugs,' " she said.

She took a week off in August 1997 and was preparing to seek help in earnest when her son shot himself in the face. He survived but was horribly wounded and has had a hard time since. Now he's in prison for shooting someone else last year.

The experience she and the Loughners share of slowly coming to grips with mental illness in grown children is common - Seery has seen it teaching the Family-to-Family courses.

"They come into class, and often they're in denial. It's particularly true with the fathers," she said. "People are even very leery of taking that class. They're afraid of coming out of the closet."

Amy Loughner reacted like many parents to her son's decline, the newly released reports show. In an interview with investigators about four hours after the shooting, she said she had suspected Jared was taking drugs, maybe methamphetamine, and tested him for it. The test was negative.

"We'd hear him having conversations with himself. Or just, a while ago, he was like, making all kinds of noises," she told them.

This had been going on for more than a year, she said.

But when Pima Community College officials told her and her husband in October 2010 that Jared would need a mental-health evaluation before he could return to school, they didn't make it happen.

In perhaps the saddest statement of the interviews with each parent, Amy Loughner told police that day, "I recommended that he needed to go see someone about it."

Predictably, Jared chose not to.

Randy Loughner, who was notorious in the neighborhood for behaving strangely himself, tried and failed to communicate with his son, he told the police. But he also characterized Jared's behavior inthe most charitable of ways: "He's just too smart for his own good."

Despite their denial, the Loughners did make some efforts, the reports show. They took away the shotgun Jared had bought in 2008, and they even tried to catch and question him when he left home the morning of the shootings. But Jared ran away and disappeared.

Randy and Amy Loughner have declined interview requests, but they seemed to come to grips with their son's problems in the months after his arrest.

One of the most poignant moments in Loughner's judicial process came on May 25, 2011, when U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns announced the results of a psychologist's evaluation: Loughner has schizophrenia and had been showing signs of it for more than two years. In the quiet courtroom, Loughner's parents erupted in sobs.

You can only imagine their guilt.

Even when parents such as the Loughners face their children's problems in time, many or most don't know what to do about it. Systems are in place to help (see the box for two numbers), but ignorance of them is widespread.

The Loughners screwed up, and now the reports have shown us how. The result was catastrophic. But the mistakes they made were common and, I think, forgivable.

What would be unforgivable is if we don't learn from their mistakes.

HELP LINES

• To get help with a mental-health crisis, call the Crisis Response Network: 622-6000

• Suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-TALK(8255)

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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