While Adam Lanza may have been a troubled, mentally ill youth, there are such people everywhere, including Niles, Park Ridge, Skokie and Chicago's north suburbs, said Seth Knobel, director of Niles Family Services.
He has worked with families here who have kids going through erratic, bizarre behavior and mental illness--similar to what Adam Lanza, - may have experienced.
"It doesn't necessarily mean they'll grow up to be mass murderers," he said.
However, it IS important for parents to take children with extremely disruptive behavioral issues to see a mental health professional, Knobel emphasized.
That's especially critical for parents like the writer of the essay "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother," which appeared in Huffington Post. The author, Liza Long, details how her 13-year-old son can be calm but then erupt in bizarre and violent behavior. She fears for the safety of her other two children, and worries his condition is eerily similar to that of Adam Lanza, Jared Loughner, Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, and other names now notorious for committing mass shootings.
"I love my son. But he terrifies me," she wrote.
Knobel empathized with her fears and frustrations, including the frustration that mental health takes time and effort to diagnose and treat. While you can have physical ailments and walk into a doctor's office and get a blood draw and a diagnosis, it can take months for a mental health professional to figure out how best to approach mental illness.
"With some kids, it has taken a long time to get to that aha moment where medication and therapy match up, so the individual can start living as productive and fulfilling a life as they can," Knobel said.
Mental illness has its roots in physical causes, just as physical illnesses do, he stressed.
"This is a chemical imbalance--this is something in the brain that causes them to act this way," Knobel explained, adding people have no more control over getting schizophrenia than they do over getting cancer.
And mental health professionals do not judge or blame parents who bring their kids in. They work with you to find a healthier way of being, he said.
Few resources even in this affluent area
The Maine Center, a social service agency in Park Ridge, no longer has a child psychiatrist on staff, Knobel said, though they do have an adult psychiatrist, and they occasionally have succeeded in getting psychiatrists to do pro bono work.
However, Niles Family Service refers most children who need psychiatric help to Turning Point, a social service agency in Skokie which serves towns from Evanston to Park Ridge and northwards.
Knobel doesn't believe institutionalizing people is the right answer, largely because Illinois no longer has therapeutic places where the mentally ill can go to get help and healing. Instead, many of the mentally ill are confined in correctional facilities.
Insurance doesn't cover mental health adequately, he says
One problem that Niles Family Services bumps up against is that many health insurance plans, even relatively good ones, make people jump through hoops to get coverage for mental health services, or place restrictions on them.
"There are real issues with the mental health aspect of insurance," he said. Some insurers consider it a pre-existing condition and place limits on coverage; others require primary care doctors to certify that the mental illness is causing physical health problems before they will cover it.
Knobel said his agency depends on the National Organization of Social Workers to address this issue at the federal level.
When to call
How can parents distinguish between naughty-but-normal children's behavior and behavior that requires a visit to a mental health professional?
Knobel has two answers. The first is that any behavior that makes you fear for your own or another person's safety is definitely behavior that needs looking at by a professional.
The second answer is even simpler. If your child's behavior causes disruption, and if it bothers you, come on in, he urged.
"If somebody has a question about their child--or their brother, sister or neighbor--they should seek out help," he said.
Do it sooner, rather than later, because the behavior may only escalate, he advises.