A Brother’s Reflection on the Struggle of the Mentally Ill, in the wake of a great tragedy.

I had no idea, on Thursday night, when I posted on my sister Mary Anne, on her struggle with mental illness, and also that of my parents to speak to her dignity, and her needs, that a terrible act of violence would unfold on Friday morning (see that post HERE). And while all the facts are not before us, it would seem that, mental illness, and how we as a society deal with the mentally ill, is central to the tragedy that unfolded in Connecticut.

I want to speak to you, in a personal way, as someone who has experienced in his own family the devastating impact of mental illness. I want to write of the struggle to deal with it in a way that respects the dignity of the mentally ill and also the need to protect the common good.

As for my sister Mary Anne and of her 30 year struggle with mental illness, I wrote last week. She had moments of great lucidity, and peace. But these moments were often punctuated by deep troubles, wherein she heard “the voices” who instructed her to do terrible things, acts of violence, acts that harmed her and others. In these, “dark moments” she perpetrated acts of violence, breaking into stores, engaging, not only in shoplifting, but also, it attempted armed robbery, breaking and entering, and other, almost pointless destruction of property. Many times she turned on herself, several times slashing her wrists, taking overdoses, trying to jump to her death. Once, she accosted my mother with a long carving knife. Another time, she successfully stabbed my mother, wounding her seriously in the middle of the night, while she slept. My sister also, set fires, and would ultimately die in a fire that she kindled.

And yet in all of this, my sister Mary Anne, had many lucid moments, wherein she was gentle, kind, helpful and deeply concerned for the well-being of all of us. She was a beautiful human being who struggled mightily to keep her mental health, in the face of a horrible affliction that often overtook her. She loved God, and like all of us, sought his face and the serenity and healing that only God can give.

In all of this, my parents too were engaged in a great battle. It was not a battle that was not easily defined. It was a battle that sought to protect my sisters rights, and her dignity. But it was also a battle that sought to protect the common good, which my parents rightly thought was threatened by my sister’s instability.

Early in my sister’s struggle with mental illness, she was confined to the rather protected environment of mental hospitals. That said, men of these places were not pleasant. And my parents, expended many personal resources, and money to ensure that my sister was in the best of possible environments. But honestly, the protected environment of a mental hospital was best for her, that is where she an others were best protected.

Somewhere, in the late 1970s, as I recall, the ACLU, and other interest groups, sued the federal government, claiming that many were being unjustly detained in mental hospitals. Having lost a series of suits, the government largely emptied the mental hospitals, resulting in a great exodus of the seriously mentally ill into our streets.

As most of you know, the “homelessness” problem, in our large cities, was deeply rooted in mental illness. Who of us have encountered homeless persons have seen the depths of their pain and understand that they struggle with mental illness, and also addiction. I know the mental hospitals prior to 1975 were not wonderful, or well-run, but I have grave concerns that we overreacted and severed many people from the necessary, and protected environment that they most needed.

My sister, was among those who were ushered out of mental hospitals, and placed into group homes settings and other less protected environments. Ultimately, this led to the death of my sister, and of great pain for many others.

In the years following her dismissal from the mental hospital system, my sister bounced back and forth through many different group homes. She often ran off, and in her difficult moments and became involved in many incidents that harmed her and others.

In all this, my parents engaged in an ongoing battle, to have her reconsidered for commitment to the more protected environment of the secured mental hospital. Repeatedly, they were denied. Frankly, with the jurisprudence of the time, these mental health officials had little to go on. The emphasis was on the rights of the mentally ill to be emancipated, and their own safety, and the safety of the community seemed to be quite secondary.

Having proved incapable of stably navigating the group home system my sister was NOT placed back into the mental hospital system, but in fact, was further disconnected from mental health services. She was assigned “Section 8 housing,” and merely given access to daycare facilities.

My parents protested this low level of care, indicating her history of violence and other antisocial acts when she went into crisis. But my sister was a 30-year-old woman, and the state mental health officials indicated that she had rights. And while my parents concerned were legitimate, the officials indicated there was little they could do.

Having been assigned a Section 8 apartment, my sister would be dead within one month. Sure enough, without careful supervision she went off her medicines. She began to act out, breaking into a local convenience store, and committing various other acts of vandalism. The neighbors spoke of her as “strange” and of standing out on her porch late at night speaking out an singing odd songs. Having been arrested on several occasions she was returned to her apartment.

My parents requested her immediate committal, but she protested, and the police indicated that court procedures would have to be followed. A final brief conference with my parents, the police, and my sister ended with a very unreasonable solution: an unstable and very angry young woman was left alone in her own apartment, insisting that police and parents leave her alone. In all this there was no legal recourse. And so my parents, and the police left.

With in one hour, a fire erupted in my sister’s apartment, a fire the investigators had be set, and in which she tragically died. Mary Anne had a history of setting fires when she heard the voices. Twenty-five other families were left without a home that night and many lives were altered.

Please understand, mental illness is a complicated. It remains true that the mentally ill, and mentally incompetent do not lose their rights or dignity. But among those rights and dignities are the need for them to be protected. Many of them struggle with very fragile mental health. The distinction between lucidity and insanity are very fine lines. Simply missing a dose of medicine, or lacking a basic support structure can send them over the edge.

I still weep for my sister, even now as I write this. She was a good woman, a woman who loved God, a woman who loved us, but a woman who struggled mightily to keep her sanity. She was a woman who heard voices, who was a assailed  with demonic oppression. She wanted to be well. She deserved better than to die in an apartment alone, surrounded by flames. She died weeping. Many others also suffered that night, those who lost their homes, and my parents who lost their only daughter. Yes, so many suffered.

Could this have been prevented? I think so.

As we grieve the loss of so many in Connecticut, we do not know all the details. But it seems increasingly clear  that Adam, who committed these acts, was a deeply troubled young man. It is perhaps easy for us to think of him only as “a monster.” But perhaps the reality is more complex than that. I will not say more of the Connecticut case, we do not know the details. I ask only your prayers for those who have suffered, including Adam and his family.

Among the things that we need to consider as we assess this terrible tragedy, is how we deal with the mentally ill. In saying this, I do not deny that there are legitimate concerns related to guns, violent video games, and other deep wounds in our families, including divorce and a culture gone awry.  But among the reflections should be a consideration of mental illness, and the mentally ill. They are not unambiguously evil people. They, like my sister, struggle to find moments of sanity in a mental landscape often assailed by voices, and innumerable psychopathic episodes that disconnect them chronically or episodically from that precious thing we call reality, and good mental health.

People suffer from, and even die from mental illness daily. Finding a way to balance their civil rights, and their need to live in contact with others, must be balanced with the common good, with the need for all of us to live safely. I know, that we did not get the balance right with my sister, Mary Anne. She deserved better than to die alone in an apartment surrounded by flames. And the twenty-five other families, who lost a home that night, also deserved better.

We need to pray and work consistently for a proper solutions for the mentally ill, a solution that respects their individual rights, needs, and dignity and balances these with the needs of the common good, and wider society. May all who suffer from mental illness, and all who suffer with the mentally ill, be blessed encouraged by our God who alone can wipe every tear from our eyes.

Here is a video on the pain of loss:

68 Replies to “A Brother’s Reflection on the Struggle of the Mentally Ill, in the wake of a great tragedy.”

    1. God bless you, Monsignor, and all who have such a cross to bear. It is worth remembering too that St. Therese of Lisieux’s beloved father was committed to an insane asylum. She is certain to give assistance to all who cry out to her in such painful circumstances.

  1. I think it unfortunate that in the aftermath of these incidents there is much outcry about guns, but little about the state of the mental-health services in our nation. Guns are not the only factor these incidents have in common.

    One of the “talking heads” that appeared on the Fox News morning program asserted that the services available to those struggling with mental illness are woefully inadequate. To further complicate matters, the various agencies/entities that may interact with a particular individual often don’t communicate with each other – in part because of laws protecting patient privacy – and warning signs thus are easily missed.

    Certainly care should be taken to protect privacy and dignity; and there must be respect for a person’s right to make decisions about whether to receive care and what treatment options to pursue. While forcing someone into treatment is not a matter to be taken lightly, perhaps we need to review the criteria for involuntary commitment. The right to refuse care does not trump another’s right to live.

  2. I think the lack of proper care of the mentally ill is one of the least discussed problems in our health care system, perhaps in the country. As a critical care doctor I would guess about a third of our ICU patients have serious mental health issues that have contributed in a major way to their life threatening medical illness. This may be directly because of a suicide attempt, but more often indirectly because of issues involved with substance abuse or problems that have made it impossible for them to adequately care for a chronic medical condition like diabetes. In some cases horrific situations like that in Newton occur. There is no easy or clear solution to the problem, Mental illness because it is a mix of the mental, and physical is extremely complex. On some level it is clear that their is physical pathology in the brain ( so in a sense things like schizophrenia and depression are neurological disorders and are as much physical problems as diabetes, or epilepsy). Because of the complex interplay of the brain problems with emotional, spiritual and social factors the resultant problems are extremely hard to sort out. The writer and blogger Liza Long has written a poignant piece about her son’s struggle with mental illness. It is getting a great deal of attention and deservedly so. It can be found by a google search of the authors name and the term Washington Post.

    I can only echo your prayer and plea that all of us began to pay attention to this problem not only to prevent the next horrible catastrophe, but to begin to help the enormous number of people who are suffering in ways that few of us can imagine.

  3. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh. Never did the LORD promise us a rose garden. Yeah, though I walk in this great valley of tears, I will fear no evil, for THY rod and THY staff they comfort me. Please remember us in YOUR Kingdom.

  4. We pray, as in Luke 23,34 ‘Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” ‘

  5. I personally feel this issue should be handeled at the local and state level by a panel of medical, psychiatic professionals working with citizen groups and families affected by and most familiar with the situations creating the societal problems dealing with the mentally ill. Not wishing to politicize the issue, still this point is clear. The ACLU, liberal lawyers, and federal lawmakers as a whole have done more damage to the overall well being and safety of the mentally ill and society, since intruding in the 1970’s, while medical science has vastly improved the medications and standards of treatments for the mentally ill patient. I worked in a psychiatric unit of a hospital for a little over a year back in 1975 just before the ACLU and federal government, starting in the Carter era began looking for strawmen to prop-up and rescue us from. There were things that federal standards could have improved if left to the local and state authority to uphold and regulate from outside the out of touch, myopic inside the beltway elitist.The progressive call for more gin control is used as a strawman, failing to either understand, ignore or divert attention to the failure of federal laws and controls that have paved the way for the growing number of incidents all involving mentally ill perpetrators with histories of documented mental aberrant behaviors left unchecked because of federally contolled civil liberties. I’m all for better gun control. I feel the federal government should answer for “Fast and Furious” that led to the murder of a federal agent and contless citizens. So how is the massive leviathan of ferderally mandated healthcare going to be any better than the mess they have already created other than to limit everyones freedoms. After all, President Obama wants to make it fair and equal for all, with taxpayer subsidized fedral programs designed by taxpayer subsidized government elitist who are more equal than others while taking, “we the people” of state and local citizens out of the constitutional equation and leaving it to federally controlled powers like the ACLU and the oligarchy inside the beltway to decide.

  6. I’m also in favor of more gun control as well as gin control and never mix the two together without an olive and a splash of water.

  7. While not schizophrenia, there is mental disorder in our family, too – I think part of what happened in Newtown was a reaction against others’ behaviors which this young man was not able to handle. (Pressures, and other insensitivities from others.) Great sensitivity (and love, too) was needed, and, I’m very sure, often not available. The protection you speak of would have prevented this.

  8. There are many good parents out there who understand what it is like to have a child who is mentally ill. Over the years they become drained – emotionally, physically, and financially – trying to help this child while also trying to preserve the rest of the family from being ruined. I know. It is a huge cross to carry.

    Monsignor, Our Lord Jesus Christ spent much of His ministry freeing people from demonic oppression. He gave His apostles authority to do the same. I pray like crazy for someone I know is under demonic oppression, because I simply don’t know what else to do. I’ve tried everything, spent everything. There are times when I am afraid for this person, but am afraid to discuss my fears with anyone – except my confessor. I pray the rosary daily for this person, believing that it is Mary who crushes the serpent’s head.

    My question to you is, how do you – a priest – instruct others in similar situations?

    1. Without doubt I instruct them in deliverance prayers, I pray such prayers with the afflicted and also give parents and others prayers for deliverance they can also pray. e.g. here: http://www.scripturecatholic.com/dprayers.pdf

      There are also minor exorcism prayers that the parish priest can pray (not the formal exorcism prayers which can only be permitted by the bishop). In rare cases the diocesan exorcist must be consulted and team must make a determination is a major exorcism is to be done.

      All that said, deliverance prayers, minor exorcisms and even major exorcism is not magic. As sacramentals, (i.e. not sacraments) they work ex opere operantis and thus the disposition of the afflicted person is critical to their success. Further, prayers and exorcisms should be part of a multidisciplinary approach to the problem to include, spiritual direction, psychotherapy, and regular reception of confession and Communion with recourse to regular personal prayer.

      1. You are right Msgr. Medicines, psychotherapy, prayers and the sacraments (confession & communion) and sacramentals (blessed things) can work together to help the mentally ill. Jesus is the Divine Physician!
        I pray that God will comfort the families of the victims so that they will not enter into despair. Everyone please PRAY the Rosary today for the families of the victims and for the souls of the departed.

  9. Many avenues to take to see to the proper care of the mentally ill, and the Church can and should be in the forefront on this as she has been in so many human sufferings over the ages. I cannot help but think that devotions to St. Dymphna need to be resurrected, perhaps even parish novenas. In times past she was invoked as patroness of the mentally ill and this designation alone was enough in our culture to get her ignored. I mean, no one wanted to be associated with that connotation. But her patronage and intercession can be widened these days to include all and any forms of mental and emotional health, not just “insanity”. In my ministry I spread devotion to St. Dymphna among those who worry, those, those who have addictions, those who are in some form of 12 step recovery, those who suffer with depression, and family and friends of all these people as well. I hand out prayer cards and medals that have been blessed with her relics. I encourage others to learn about this awesome Irish virgin-Martyr saint and grow in devotion to her. Check out her national shrine which carries religious items and information: https://www.natlshrinestdymphna.org/

  10. Monsignor, my family suffers through a similar scenario to the one you described in yours. We were blessed with four children. The oldest of the four was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at around 16 years of age. He was very gifted mentally and spiritually but the illness has taken it’s toll on those traits. He is now a 41 year old man and he lives half of the time with my wife and I and the other half in a residential care facility.

    The one thing that has kept him protected was our going to court to obtain legal guardianship at age18 for only his health/medical issues. This allows me to have him admitted to the hospital if he is a danger to himself or others. We work with his closely with his doctors and caregivers and over the years I have had to have him committed five or six times. This process was not very much fun, as we had to go to court in an us(parents) versus him(with a state appointed lawyer) case. It was distasteful in many ways but I now see how it has saved our son. Before this guardianship he could go off of his meds because he thought he didn’t need them anymore with no consequences. The police would end up involved and, usually at the psychiatric wing of a hospital we would have to try and get him to admit himself. We still have many nightmares from those times. After we obtained the legal guardianship, we could have him admitted until he was stabilized on his meds. While he still has times where the illness causes him a lot of internal turmoil, he knows we will have him admitted if he gets too far off meds where he is getting too bizzare. In the last ten years he has only been admitted three or four times. These were mainly due to bouts of drinking too much. He now has a dual diagnosis of the mental illness and alcholism. With this arrangement he has never lived on the streets on his own.

    Prayer and constantly asking for help from our God has made it bearable, albeit, at times just barely. Yet, we have been able to cope. We are getting older and are now having to get the other three children on board to prepare them for the takeover when my wife and I come to our final reward. Praying for Our Blessed Mothers intercession has proved most beneficial and I would suggest joining some Marian organization, e.g.; Legion of Mary, Blue Army etc. It really helped us.

  11. Msgr. Pope, you have referred to minor and major prayers of exorcism and exorcism itself. I wonder if your dear sister and Adam Lanza might have benefitted from the services of a diocesan excorcist. If Church laws and/or rules on this ceremony are strict, perhaps they should be relaxed. Is there any doubt Satan is at work in these unfortunate people?

  12. Monsignor, this brought tears to my eyes. Thank you very much for your thoughtful and compassionate post. This put into words something I have felt for a very long time. You and your family are in my daily prayers. God bless you.

  13. I work in a rectory and know of several families who are dealing with similar issues. Just two weeks ago, I spoke with a young woman who has legal custody of her nephew because her brother and sister-in-law have serious drug addictions.

    She told me that her family found out much too late that her brother’s primary problem was not drugs, it was mental illness. He started the drug usage to cope with the illness. She said that due to the misguided policies of the 1970s that emptied the mental hospitals, there was nothing that the family could do for her brother. Nothing. There is no place for him in any system except jail, where he periodically ends up.

    Last year she visited him in jail and he told her something that I can’t get out of mind, especially after the events of last Friday. He told her that jail is “the only place I feel free”. She said that made perfect sense to her because he requires a highly regimented schedule that does not vary day to day. It’s a tragedy that jail is the only place today that can provide what his illness needs.

  14. Mnsgr,

    Do we, as a culture, look too quickly to excuse evil behavior by finding an explanation (e.g. structures of sin, mental illness, etc) rather than simply saying sin (and by extension evil) really exist and, as a consequence, things like this happen? I am not suggesting this particular case may not be partially or entirely due to mental illness (you may have more information than I on that score), but certainly we, particularly as Catholics, can admit that such things can happen without any explanation further than sin. This man might very well have been insane, but such a tragedy could be caused simply by the man willing to do evil.

    1. Yes, your explanation is possible, but as you point out, I am basing this reflection on fairly widespread information that the young man in question was troubled mentally.

  15. I’m disturbed by seeing commenters here assume mental illness=demonic activity. It might be. Might not be, too, and assuming it is and tryinig the local exorcist may not be what is needed. A good psychiatric drug regimen may be the solution. Of course, a good exorcist will have the person checked out on those lines before going forward. I know someone who did go to the local exorcist and had to jump through those hoops first.

    What I have seen, and mental illness has had great impact on our family, is that it is sneaky. It is very hard to catch and diagnose. It creeps up slowly and people just say oh, that’s Joe being Joe, without ever stepping back and getting a reality check that Joe’s behavior IS NOT NORMAL. And not just lack of discipline either. Mental illness doesn’t come with handy diagnosis aids such as spots, like measles, unfortunately. Even audio or visual hallucinations can be hidden. (I’m part of a web support group for families, someone posted once that their family member had been hearing things for years, but thought everyone did, so never mentioned it….) So it can take years for family and friends to realize that person needs more help than a talking to. Even therapists don’t catch it all the time (family experience with that). Then throw in the fact that most psychiatrists are a) average and b) prone to seeing what they’re already used to treating in a new patient, and everyone is playing guessing games about the treatment that would help.

    There are people doing research to minimize the guessing games, and it worked extremely well in our family (twice!), but recommend it to others in the field and hear it dismissed as ‘crackpot.’ It is all very VERY frustrating to people who care about these very ill people. I hold them up in prayer a lot.

    1. Yes, you make important distinctions and cautions here. The first presumption in any investigation by a Catholic Diocese and exorcist is to rule out mental illness or other natural causes in the problem or to identify specifically that demonic activity is at least a significant part of the problem. Even if some form of exorcism, minor or major is thought helpful, one should NEVER rely merely on it, but should always use an interdisciplinary approach which combines, prayer, counseling psychotherapy the possible use of psychotropic drugs and the like. We human beings are complex, especially when it comes to understanding behavior.

      1. What is wrong with getting the legal guardianship of your loved one. In their incapacitated state this allows you to take charge of their fate. Your love for them will have you making the decisions needed to care for them. You can see to it that they get the interdisciplinary care they need.

          1. My wife and I lived through the hurdles, Monsignor. If a loved one is in distress from having a mental illness, why would a loved one not want to be able to really help. The legal hurdle is manageable with prayer through Mary to her Son. What hurdles do you refer? Helping is almost impossible without the legal guarantee of REALLY being able to help. Without being able to have the loved one hospitalized, you can’t really help.

          2. Obtained legal guardianship for my son in 1989 at age 18. We sat in a court room as adversaries, each of us having our own legal representation. The social worker and psychiatrist both testified for our side. More folks need to know about this option, if they truly want to help their loved ones. Should a loved one get off their meds or have a meltdown for whatever reason, the guardian can have them committed. It is not a fun thing to do but at times in their lives it is a blessing to have family truly take care of them in their time of need. Words don’t work when the mentally ill are in a breakdown but the law gives us the means to act.

          3. Ray:

            Not sure if you are aware but your whole tone to Msgr. Pope is pretty offensive. I am very glad you were able to handle the situation with your daughter as you describe. I was successful with my daughter as well just a few years ago although her situation was a severe disability. Your whole tone implies that there was something the Msgr.’s parents didn’t try. If you are a lawyer from the same state they lived in then I withdraw my comments and you may have insights into the situation but otherwise you come across judgmental and clearly assert that the Msgr’s parents just wouldn’t do the hard work. Fairly insensitive and rude. Again I am glad you were able to make your daughter’s situation the best it could be. I am just going to assume Msgr. Pope’s parents did the best the could given all of the circumstances in a complicated situation. Maybe look up compassion in the dictionary. Might get you off on the right foot. If that doesn’t work then try “if you can’t say something nice; then don’t say anything at all”.

          4. Well, Ray, my Father was a civil attorney and I know he tried everything. As for guardianship, the concept is a bit beside the point, the problem was getting her committed, which the State refused to do. I have to Agree with Steve M as well, your tone is puzzling.

          5. Chiming in, we’ve never faced the need to commit a family member, but in the support group I’m part of I see a lot of people – parents of minors – trying to get help of various sorts, up to and including commitment and having a dreadfully hard time getting anywhere with it. Some states apparently let kids make medication decisions when they are 13. It seems that even when the person is self harming, and the parent is crying for help, you can’t get it.

            At least a lot of the time. Even with suicide or ‘danger to others’ cases they often only get a 3 day hold. One person only got help by relinquishing authority to a court appointed guardian. (And the kid apparently still isn’t getting effective help, although being no longer in the house, no longer a threat to family.) I don’t know why it would have been different back in the 80s or 90s.

            Having legal guardianship is NOT a panacea. your local system needs to cooperate and by what I can tell from what I hear from families across the country, it mostly doesn’t.

  16. Dear Msgr. Pope:
    Thank you so much for your honest sharing. I hear and see the pain in your words not only at the loss of your sister but also at the loss of millions around the country. Your solidarity with the grieving and the mourning is amazing! Normally people come out of painful experiences either bitter or better. I am glad that you fall under the latter category. I have seen you transforming pain into grace and grief into joy. I am sorry to hear about your loss.

    Grief is the natural reaction to any kind of loss. Even the Son of God was not immune from it. He wept at the loss of His friend Lazarus (John 11:35). My heart goes out to all the grieving families and communities in New Town Connecticut that lost twenty of their innocent children and six adults. Our God is on the gallows again!

    Memorializing or grieving alone is not a panacea for the problems that we face today. Proactive solutions like systemic change to prevent the mentally ill from falling through the crack and pulling the trigger, keeping the mentally ill who has a propensity for suicidal and homicidal acts in protective environments, Gun control, education and social support for the families for taking care of the mentally ill, educating the society about mental illness to remove the stigma in seeking treatment, addressing our dysfunctional family system, religious revival to bring back God into our everyday life, eradication of movies that promote violence, etc are needed. A nation with a resolve is what we need and not a blame game.

    As a priest who is also a mental health professional with a certification in grief recovery, I was shocked to hear that the mother of the assassin kept guns at his reach. Surely, she needed education on how to take care of the mentally ill. It is also noteworthy to mention that lots of undiagnosed mentally ill live in our society. They come to the limelight only when they perpetrate atrocities. There is no exaggeration in saying that our society and systems need treatment too.

  17. Monsignor,

    Thank you for sharing this personal and painful story with us to assist in our understanding of the scope of the problem. I have spent many years working with this population both in and out of a hospital setting, and have seen the dramatic decrease in available services, especially in this era of managed care. We desperately need to recognize the legitimacy of mental illness and afford the treatment that we would to physical diseases such as cancer. This vulnerable population on the fringes of society and their families deserve better than what is currently available, only made worse when fingers are pointed after an incident of violence occurs. May your words reach those in our government and congress who can affect change. Nothing will change until we act to protect and treat the mentally ill in a proactive, rather than reactive, way.

  18. A very thoughtful and informative post, Monsignor.
    In recent years we’ve discovered that my precious little sister also suffers from this. She is now 40. She keeps herself away from us for months at a time (we are currently in that mode), and has ‘hearing voices’ and ‘people following me’ moments. She has never been violent, thank you, God. The solitude of my sister is so intense, yet she has two jobs and is a good worker. When our dad was ill and needed in-home care for 18 months, she stepped up to stay with him for three days a week (24/7). I treasure that time of seeing her and interacting with her so often during that time. I’m told by mental health workers that even the mentally ill can have clarity and good purpose in times of emergency or crisis. But when the emergency or crisis is past, she goes back into her solitude mode.
    My poor dad has blamed himself for her condition but I think he is finally realizing — through the grace of God — that my sister is not this way because my dad treated her poorly or was too critical or asked too many questions about her life. This is how she is and it is no one’s fault. This is a cross to bear. He is learning this. My dad comes from a time when mental illness was not discussed and psychology suspect and counseling unheard of. He is slowly realizing that my sister may be beyond his own physical or financial help. What can always reach her (and our Lord) is prayer. And knowing that the power of prayer releases the suffering for that moment…this keeps him busy.

    1. Yes, we often wonder who is to blame or what the “cause” of mental illness is. My mother often wonder if she did something either during pregnancy or early on. But nothing really stands out. There is a great mystery here.

      1. There is no blame. Christ told us about crosses we will encounter. Step up to the plate and use the brains God gave you all. Look into legal guardianship. You won’t feel so helpless and forlorn. It is not the end all solution but it will give you a feeling of being at least half in control. Monsignor isn’t the only Catholic family to have bad things happen but we should at least all be able to share experiences that worked with each other.

        1. Ray:
          Please review my early post about rudeness but then add arrogance, heartless, senseless, uncharitable. Let me know if you need anymore input.

        2. Ray – do you read any comments but your own, or is your goal just to make repeated jabs at Monsignor? The woman in question has been dead for over 20 years, and even if she were alive, Monsignor is a priest and could not in all likelihood assume the responsibility of trying to get her committed.

          What Steve said – yep.

  19. Monsignor,

    Was it a living hell for your parents trying to cope with your sister’s situation? Is this one of the reasons why your dad was done with this world at the end of his life?

  20. Did you sister’s suffering and the great Cross your parents had to carry strengthen your mother’s faith?

  21. Thanks Msgr. for your thoughts.

    In relation specifically to these outbreaks of slaughter–any thoughts from anyone on why there seems to be a predominance of young white males committing these acts? Many of which are of above average or even superior intelligence?

    Also there seems to be a prevalence of broken homes in these situations which no one in the media so far as I am aware thinks is a fact worthy of parlaying into a policy discussion.

    I mean, we have always had guns, and we have always had mental illness with us. So what is new and different, and apparently, seriously wrong with our society, that may be contributing to these seemingly random acts of massacre?

  22. Monsignor, Thank you for sharing your story about your sister. I work quite often with the mentally ill in my job in the ER, and I think that there definitely needs to be some big changes in how things are dealt with in the psychiatric field. To a greater degree, there also needs to be changes made to the justice system on how mentally ill people who continually threaten their families and the public are dealt with (please e-mail me for more info since I don’t get detailed in the comments). I really feel for the mentally ill people I take care of and their families because there are not a ton of resources out there for them at the moment. I am glad you shared this and God Bless You and your family.

  23. The problem is compounded, Monsignor, by the regular use of medication to treat most mental disorders. It seems that there are very few options available beyond a pill and prayer.

    Please take my humble advice; no guilt necessary as to the cause of mental illness.
    It is always just God’s Will. The best we can do is love hard all involved. Remember, as hard as it is, real gifts come in various packages.

    I will pray for you and the family. If you can, remember in your prayers my family that deals with hard issues too.

  24. There is much food for thought here. I too had a brother who was mentally ill, but NOT with temptations to do violence either against himself or others. His was more of a tremendous confusion as to whether he should or ought to be a woman. He had to leave high school at 18 and enter a mental hospital because of it, causing much pain and grief to my mother, (this was in the late ‘forties, in California, and shock treatment was often the prescribed regimen, among others, literally trying to SHOCK him out of his mental problems with volts of electricity.) It largely didn’t work. In his early ‘fifties, he was released, however, because there was a push to close the institution, Camarillo State Hospital, in Camarilo, Calif. But, once again, he basically had no violence in him. More is now known about the 20 year old killer in Connecticut. His mother was apparently a convinced survivalist who, maybe due to the Mayan Phropecies imbroglio, was totally freaked out about everything coming to an end. She had bought at least 5 high-caliber weapons and had taught both of her kids how to use them, stocked food for the so-called end time, etc. He was reputedly a goth, a computer geek, felt socially aloof from almost everyone, would not even hug his mother, which allegedly pained her no end. Enormous tension apparently lay between them like a 500 pound elephant in the proverbial living room. And then he snapped. In a monstrous delusional state,(I’d call it demonic) this pathetic soul shoots his mother in the head 4 times and then proceeds to his lethal rampage. Some narratives are trying to say that in his unhinged state, he thought he was SPARING these innocent youngsters the pain and horror of what he (?) and his mother believed about these “end times.” (?) What a ferocious irony, if true! His mother trains him to “cope” with the so-called “end of days,” and he MURDERS the very one who showed him how to use the very weapons on others, his mother trained him with. So many lessons to be learned here.
    In the wonderfful prayer “Litany of Resignation to the Will of God,” there is this line, as follows: “Thou who dost permit evil in order thence to derive good for the salvation of the elect, HAVE MERCY ON US.”. I believe that part of the prayer says a lot as to the WHY of this horrific occurrence. But there’s ONE MORE parallel to mine from. And that’s the undeniable parallel to the legalized abortion holocaust. For @ planned parenthood, doctors inflict violent death upon the preborn; in the Connecticut case, a 20 year-old psycopath inflicted violent death upon those who were recently born. May the merciful God have mercy on all of us. MARKRITE

    1. ““Litany of Resignation to the Will of God,” there is this line, as follows: “Thou who dost permit evil in order thence to derive good for the salvation of the elect, HAVE MERCY ON US.”. I believe that part of the prayer says a lot as to the WHY of this horrific occurrence. But there’s ONE MORE parallel to mine from. And that’s the undeniable parallel to the legalized abortion holocaust.”

      I didn’t know about this litany and will look it up. I am often resigned to the will of God, but what I really want is to *love* the will of God. So I do pray for the virtue of obedience.

      Yes, thought crossed my mind why there is no outrage when a baby in the womb is killed.

      Msgr, thank you for such an insightful post. One family member is mentally ill, but none of us, including him, did not realize it until he was in his 50s. I think he uses alcohol and drugs as a way to numb himself. Thank God he has a wife who will not abandon him, and a mother who rescued him several times from imminent death. She always said he must have a great purpose … We all do.

  25. I have eight children. They couldn’t be more different. If I hadn’t had so many I would have been more prone to blame myself or take credit for their failures or successes. Two of my children have what could possibly be traits of Asbergers. One of them struggled mightily with symptoms of OCD that mostly cleared upon reaching the age of reason. Thanks be to God, being citizens of a large family helped them to blend in. There was never time or focus for aberrations. A common goal for everybody, to achieve the ultimate good of everyone was a given.
    In my experience, we help *shape* who our children already are. We assist the soul who comes to us with the qualities that they are gifted or burdened with. There is however one major point that I feel very strongly about.
    * We can’t deny that Western society has experienced a staggering increase in mental illness*.
    ** I think we need to analyze what has changed in our approach to having and nurturing children.
    When I had my first baby, I was given what could be considered THE child rearing manual for new parents, written by Dr. Spock. Dr. Spock advocated an extremely rigid schedule for infants, and a kind of parenting that was less conducive to natural breastfeeding, and mother/infant bonding. It took me a long time to muddle through Dr. Spock’s 1950s advice to figure out exactly what was wrong with it, while I suffered with pain over what was wrong with *me*and my parenting skills because my infant wouldn’t leave me alone, and needed to feed through the night. In researching the subject I discovered that my infant, in his basic needs was no different than the infants of others, and most importantly, the infants of hominids and humans through the ages. I discovered that my instincts were more in line with the way mothers before me than the 20th century doctors who felt they could rewrite the book. In the process I also discovered that this manner of feeding and comforting was also what was needed to naturally space my children, as every time the infant sucks it sends a message to the hypothalamus to suppress ovulation.
    Even primates suffer mental illness when the mother-infant bond is disrupted.
    Years later, I discovered that Spock, the great pediatrician’s *only child*, a son, died from suicide.
    In a post industrialized society we have tried to approach parenting with a kind of cold efficiency that denies what thousands of years of motherhood had achieved by instinct-following nurturing. We learned in our new 20th century manuals how infants and small children are to be controlled, and how they can be handled for minimal impact upon our own lives. Formula promised us a liberation, from the profound neediness of our little ones, and the agony of “death to self” that so many mothers struggle terribly from, when they confront the sacrifice that motherhood exacts. All of the brain and immune enhancing attributes of human milk are just beginning to be understood. Tribal women from Africa to Alaska experience breastfeeding infertility for as much as 48 months between children,
    I am by no means saying that formula feeding is wrong. Sometimes it is simply the only option. Loving parents who nurture in other ways can offset the inferiority of formula. Perhaps more so than an ambivalent breastfeeding mother. Not all formula feeding mothers deposit their infants in daycare centers where bored attendants prop bottles into their mouths. I’m not saying this is a monumental interruption of mother child health and bonding. It’s merely a risk factor, for disease and mental health.
    In researching genes and disease, we are learning that some genes and proclivities to illness can be switched “on” and “off” by environmental stresses. Some children that are born with certain vulnerabilities will react more severely to certain stresses than others.
    We have learned that less children succumb to SIDS when they are able to hear their mother breathe.
    We have learned that children before the age of three don’t even have a sense of “self” that is separate from their mother. When the mother is out of their sight, they don’t even have the ability to understand that she will return. The crib down the hall from the mother in a separate room is a modern phenomenon.
    Some children will cope with stress better than others, depending on their personal attributes and an entire constellation of other factors. Is the marriage stable? The mother depressed? The caregiver attentive? Eye contact? Touch? Loving Interaction?
    Are there mothers that give birth to children that are so profoundly disabled mentally and physically that there is *absolutely nothing* she could possibly do to reverse this? Yes.
    Perhaps Adam Lanza’s mother did everything right, and the disabled child she welcomed into this world was beyond her ability to help.
    * But perhaps there was a “perfect storm” of mental illness, dissolution of marriage and family, abandonment of father, alienation of older brother, minimal sibling interaction and social deprivation that changed a simple disability into a deadly catastrophe*.
    Perhaps Adam Lanza had a chance in this world, if a good balance had been achieved and he had been nurtured enough from within a stable family, to cope with his disability.

    1. Really interesting post. Especially, to me, that bit about the children blending in together as part of their first society–family. It seems to me we are so isolated from each other these days as a consequence of encouraging individualism to the highest degree. Perhaps the existence of smaller families helps contribute to the feeling of isolation that so many people experience these days. As anecdotal evidence, I can’t think of any mass murderer that has come from a large family.

      I came from a small family and I don’t think it is healthy when things are planned out that way. In my experience there was an inordinate focus on us children which I think was contributed to by the thought that we were planned projects.
      I imagine that in the case of artificially produced children, this experience will be even stronger. And the more artificial the production and relation to the parents, the greater the sense that children have that they are not welcome solely because the love of God demands they be welcome, and that their existence serves a purpose of the parents rather than the plan of God to which each parent must be open, because God wills the existence of each of us for our own sake.

  26. Bad philosophy from Michel Foucault was one of the driving forces of deinstitutionalization: http://www.city-journal.org/html/15_3_oh_to_be.html Ideas have consequences. This 2005 articlefrom Theodore Dalrymple, an English prison doctor and psychologist, came flooding back into my memory when the events Friday took place.

    It is sad beyond no end that the town of Newton had a state metal hospital until 1995. It was closed then after being emptied out starting in the 1960’s. It is heart rending to read an article by a doctor that used to work there, he said that there was a time when doctors in town would sign commital papers upon request. Surely that was not fair to the committed, who hopefully were released very quickly or not committed at all, but I can not shake the belief that if this was the year 1960 that Adam Lanza would be in Fairfield Hills Hospital, and visited by his mother every weekend, and a lot more families would be having a merry Christmas. http://newtownbee.com/Features/Features/2012/11-November/2012-11-01__14-37-25/Tales+From+Fairfield+Hills%3A+A+Doctor+Remembers

    All the wasteful spending that goes on, and we can’t afford to institutionalize paranoid schizophrenics? How can we afford not to, for their sakes and ours?

  27. Thank you for telling your family’s story. The change in the law in the 1970’s was because per patient it was cheaper to drug patients to control them than to confine them in an institution. After 40 years, my husband is finally receiving help without drugs after an EEG of his brain showed significant impairment in how his brain functioned. With neurofeedback, retraining the brain waves to connect correctly, he is beginning to respond. If an EEG of the brain were the first tool in making a diagnosis, how many people would be helped by receiving the right diagnosis and the right treatment but, unfortunately, drugs are still cheaper and there is more money to be saved and made. Again, thank you for sharing your story.

  28. I read your article with great interest. You hit the nail right on the head on many issues. I have this issue in my family as well. You referred to demonic opression. This is quite right. A tiny bit of an overproduction or underproduction of a chemical in the brain is an easy target for the evil one to poke his finger into and stir up trouble by making symptoms much, much worse. I am sorry for what your sister, parents and you went through. Thank you for sharing this and rasing awareness of this matter in the way you did.

  29. Thank you for sharing your story. My son is bipolar. He won’t take his meds and won’t go to counseling. He is fine for years at a time. But when he has his next episode I don’t know what we will do. I would not want him institutionalized but for others like your sister, that is clearly a need. Also, the present system of privacy prevents parents and loved ones from having any say or getting any information from the system in order to insure proper care. The Mental Health Care system is desperately in need of careful and sensitive overhaul.

    For now, the prison system has taken the place of mental health hospitals. Is this really what they had in mind in 1970?

  30. Msgr., all is calm, all is bright for your sister now. My heart breaks knowing the suffering your family endured….and the suffering you continue to endure. I will remember you at Mass today. Your parents and your sister do not remember any of the pain of the past – it is overshadowed by the joy of being with God. So do not fall into the trap of reliving their pain. Remember it only for the purpose of having compassion for others, and for educating others as you have done so very well in your post. But you knew that already, didn’t you? 🙂

  31. Monsignor Pope, I apologize if It appears I have been disrespectful toward you. At times I appear too strident and over zealous, especially if I hold deep felt convictions about a given topic. Just so you know, I am this same way about my Catholic faith and love for my family and country. While I won’t back off of my families actions of garnering some control of our beloved son’s mental illness, I’ll cease and desist from joining the discussions on this topic. I thank you for using your time on this kind of media, our Church needs more clergy like you. Thanks again, and God Bless. Please know that I have included you and your parents and sister in my prayers.

  32. Monsignor, thank you for sharing your story, which was incredibly moving & sad & horrible. FWIW, my story…My brother, 58, was diagnosed schizophrenic with depression in his 20s. After several decades of homelessness he now lives with our 81yo mother who is in frail health, and our sister who he despises, but who has become the de facto caregiver of our mother. He has never aimed any violence at them directly, but has broken things, and when younger had been cruel to animals. Serving in the Navy right out of high school for several years, with good reports and high scores in the technical training he undertook, he was discharged after a short stay in a military mental ward, with no benefits, no diagnosis, and no support. Thus began his adult life, and it rapidly went to hell, so that we generally didn’t know where or how he was living. After decades of this, my husband (who he’s afraid of), father (who he despises), and sister working together for several years, were able to secure him VA benefits and a monthly stipend…he has never been hospitalized (save for the brief time in the military hospital), been in jail, never been on medication, is deathly afraid of doctors of all kinds, afraid he’s being spied on, has not held a job, mooches shamelessly off my mother, hears voices, won’t go to counseling, keep appointments, goes from “normal” to delusional in the blink of an eye, etc. It is entirely likely he will lose his VA benefits because he won’t call or keep any appointment.

    In his good times (which in relation to me, happens about once in ten years), he is an incredible artist, an enjoyable conversationalist – more so than any other of my siblings – the rest of the time he is grim, in his messy room, coming out when he knows my sister isn’t there, answering in one word, if that, any comment or question aimed his way. Amazingly to me at any rate, he has several friends.

    At times like this – the terrible tragedy in Connecticut – and the young man who had never shown any violent behavior, or had a criminal record yet did these atrocious things, I wonder what will happen. I absolutely cannot consider being his guardian (if that were even possible) due to his molesting me when I was 14, and years prior to that possibly attempting to murder me by dropping a large rock on my head when he was 8 and I was 5 or 6, an incident no one in my family took seriously at all, by the way.

  33. I have noticed that nobody with a history of severe mental illness has yet contributed, so I will be that one. My diagnoses include major depression, severe, with psychotic features, and borderline personality disorder: I also had PTSD, but am no longer symptomatic, and have some symptoms of OCD. My mother says that I always seemed a little off from infancy — clever, to be sure, but off. I remember being in therapy when I was a little girl, and again when I was in high school, but I felt distrustful of therapists: even though I would attend therapy sessions faithfully and talk about my troubles, I always felt a little reserved around them.

    The summer after my junior year of high school, when I was attending college classes, I began to feel suicidal, but when I returned to high school, I felt somewhat better and did well in my classes. Having a sense of mastery at something, doing something that I enjoy and do well, tends to ameliorate my symptoms: my symptoms tend to erupt when I feel overwhelmed and powerless to change things in my life for the better. I was glad to go off to college — I did not want to be in the presence of my father — but I soon felt overwhelmed by my studies and at the beginning of my sophomore year expressed suicidal thoughts to my therapist. I was hospitalized for six weeks and soon had to return home. I was medicated with Haldol, among other things, which I think did more harm than good: it made me catatonic, unable to function, and took away my love of reading — I think my slight tendency to tardive dyskenesia is linked to the Haldol that I took then.

    Once home, I took classes at the community college part-time: I was in no fit state to look for work, but taking one or two classes a semester in subjects that I liked tended to make me feel good about myself. Nevertheless, I was still very fragile emotionally. When crossed, I would go into terrible tantrums of frustration: once I even threatened my mother with a knife because I felt frustrated. I did not want to hurt her — I wanted her to do what I asked her to do. I would express suicidal thoughts at the least frustration, and when I did that before a therapist, she put me in a 72-hour hold. My mother and I decided that therapy and medication — or at least the therapy that we could afford from the county department of mental health — were just making me worse. So I continued taking one or two classes a semester, doing well in them, and usually having fewer mood swings.

    Ultimately, after eight years of part-time attendance, I graduated from community college with an associate degree in liberal arts. I did not have enough money to transfer to a four-year university, and did not feel up to the task of full-time study anyway. I went to another nearby community college to earn a certificate in library technology part-time: while there, I discovered the California State Department of Rehabilitation, which would pay for books and tuition for further education and help to place people with disabilities in careers. I qualified, and after earning my certificate in library technology, went to a local state university full-time. I did pretty well, although there were a couple of rough spots. After I earned my BA in Liberal Studies with minors in History and Latin American Studies, I decided that I would go to UCLA to do two concurrent master’s degree programs in Latin American Studies and Library and Information Studies. The Department of Rehabilitation could not pay for housing, and I had to take out student loans, which distressed me: what if I could not pay them back?

    I was doing fairly well in my programs when I began to feel very lethargic and unable to concentrate. This worried me, but I got worse and worse. I saw a campus psychiatrist, who put me on Prozac, which only made me more jittery and anxious and suicidal. I became paranoid about having to return home to my mother. I was already 36 years old, had never married, never had children, never had a serious relationship, never had a full-time job: even my part-time job history was spotty at best. I thought that death would be preferable to being a loser. I had always been a devout, churchgoing Christian ever since I was 10 years old (I had been baptized Catholic in infancy to non-churchgoing parents at my devout grandmother’s insistence, attended the local Catholic parish as a young girl and converted to Orthodox Christianity at the age of 23), but I could never understand the concept of offering up one’s suffering to Christ. It made more sense to me that Christ would come to take suffering away: there were people whose suffering was more than they could bear. This life had to be fair and perfect for everybody at all times, or else life would not be worth living for anybody. I fantasized about killing myself and my mother and younger brother, but in fantasy it remained.

    The medication that I was given did not help much to prevent a relapse at least as bad as the one that I had during my sophomore year in college. I could not focus on my studies and flunked out because I was too sick to concentrate. I had to return home to my mother or else go on the streets: the choice was as clear as that. I resented going home to my mother, but I did that anyway. I went on SSI, which meant that almost all of my student loans were discharged because of the severity of my disability. I found a Catholic parish nearby that has weekday evening Masses (excellent for a nightowl like me who dislikes being awake before noon) and became active in it as a catechist, reader and EMHC. I became a Lay Carmelite. I found a psychiatrist — who happens to be a Catholic — who discovered that the combination of medications that I was given was not the best for me, and adjusted it the dosage of some and changed others. I realize now that my vocation in life is to be a single woman in the world — not a wife and mother, not a religious. I even write — and complete! — novels, which has been my life’s ambition since I was a young girl. Now let’s see if I can get them published, or at least e-published….

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  35. Dear Monsignior:

    I’ve just finished re-listening to your sermon for Sunday 16th December. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten how to feed the positive and don’t know where to start. I may need God’s greatest miracle ever to turn things around…I don’t know how anymore.

  36. Your tale is tragic: a loss for you, your parents and those who best knew your sister. My heartfelt condolences to all. I know something about your pain. My sister has been mentally ill since she was 18. She is now 57. Despite treatment all that time by caring, concerned professionals, she has not improved. Glimpses of the fun-loving, generous, caring sister remain, camouflaged as they are by the outward angry, confused, “crazy”, aggressive, abusive, fearful soul. She is clearly tormented, with no real help to be found. A sad, lonely life in poverty. The agonies of family members can never be understood by outsiders. You think “if only there were a way to help”. You do what you can, but not much changes.

    Some things are beyond us. Serious mental illness is one of them. We may seek (and find) comfort for ourselves in our faith; yet the mentally ill themselves find no relief.

    We can only pray for guidance, do our best, and hope.

  37. Thank you so much for your story. I am the sister of a mentally ill brother. I am now his caregiver since my parents died. Yes, it has been very hard, especially that I have my own family, 4 children, 3 grandchildren. Your story of your sister, is very similiar to my brother’s story. It is true that the entire family does go thru much pain with the mentally ill family member. I myself am at a crossroads, and not sure what i can do for him. He is still living in my parents home, but the home has to sale, and there is openings for him to move into a section 8 housing apartment. But I am not sure if he can live there, and he cannot live with me. It would be hard on him, and also on my family. I appreciate any prayers on my behalf. And thank you again for sharing your story.

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