They relate to the heavy burden of Jared Loughner's parentsHaving a 36-year-old son who believes he is God has taken a toll on Sue Hanson. If she calls police in Maple Grove, Minn., to take him to a hospital, her son might not believe that the officers or their bullets can hurt him. When he is left alone, he might wander away, believing he can make it to another planet.
By: Jeremy Olson, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) / MCT
Having a 36-year-old son who believes he is God has taken a toll on Sue Hanson.
If she calls police in Maple Grove to take him to a hospital, her son might not believe that the officers or their bullets can hurt him. When he is left alone, he might wander away, believing he can make it to another planet.
"When you're God, you know, all things are possible," his mother lamented.
Minnesota parents such as Hanson and her husband have unique perspectives on the shootings in Tucson, Ariz. They've never endured the pain of parents whose son is linked to a mass murder. But they can relate to the tales of a son being suspended from college due to bizarre behaviors, or his apparent drug use, or his fixation with wild conspiracies.
They also have unique insight into the national question of the week: How could Jared Loughner's parents not have seen this coming?
If Loughner suffers from a severe mental disorder such as schizophrenia -- and there are hints from his reported behaviors that he does -- it wouldn't be strange for his parents to miss it, they said.
First is the matter of recognition.
"You don't want to believe it," Hanson said. "It's a difficult thing to get your head around if you haven't been exposed to mental illness -- and most of us have not. You don't want it to be happening."
Hanson said her son's first "psychotic break," 16 years ago, was obvious: He claimed he was Jesus.
For others, the signs weren't as clear. When Mindy Greiling's son first started acting strangely several years ago, she figured it was the influence of drugs. Mental illness seemed far-fetched -- until the night she had to call police because her son, then 21, was wrecking her house.
Delusions can be dismissed by hopeful parents, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "Even if you see some signs in your child that something is off, there still is reluctance to think, 'Oh, gosh, my son is developing schizophrenia or some kind of mental illness!' You might think it's just being rebellious," Abderholden said.
The late teens or early 20s are common ages when delusions and symptoms of mental disorders emerge, particularly in men. Major life changes such as going to college or leaving home can trigger the disorders. While Loughner lived at home, others at this stage of life move away, making it harder for parents to pick up on the clues.
When to act?
Harder still is knowing when, as a parent, to intercede.
Dr. Michael Trangle, a leading psychiatrist for the HealthPartners Medical Group, said there are no easy tricks for parents to ask about troubling behaviors. Parents do need to set aside judgment and anxiety, though, or they are unlikely to learn much, he said.
"Talk to the kids. 'Something seems a little different. Tell me what's going on here. Are you worried about it?'" Trangle suggested. "Talk in a gentle, supportive, engaged, we're-in-this-together kind of way."
Beyond recognizing mental illness, another challenge is mental health law. Children who are 18 or older have the right to decide whether to receive treatment -- which is unlikely if they are delusional and don't believe anything is wrong. Parents also can't be involved or informed in the treatment of their adult children.
Greiling said that was a major barrier for her at first. Her son was away at the University of Montana, where a psychologist had met with him and suspected schizophrenia. He couldn't share those findings with Greiling, though, who was shocked when her son returned home.
The next problem was obtaining mental health care. Greiling, like many parents, was told the most effective method was to call police when her son was actively delusional. But when she called because her son was breaking things in her house, the police initially said he wasn't a danger to himself or others and that they wouldn't take him to a hospital.
Greiling, a DFL state representative from Roseville, later promoted changes to state law so that substantial property damage, and not just bodily harm, could justify hospital confinement and civil commitment proceedings.
Parents still complain that the system requires mentally ill children to "fail first," either by hurting themselves or breaking the law.
In the case of Roberta Anderson of New Hope, her call to 911 when her son was delusional backfired, because police took him to jail instead of a hospital. (They arrested him because he had cut off the phone when she called and hit her repeatedly with a newspaper.)
"There needs to be a better way to get someone help," Anderson said.
Minnesota has experienced high-profile incidents of violence involving the mentally ill. In 2005, a 22-year-old Stephen Miles decapitated his stepmother at her home in Burnsville shortly after he had been taken to an ER for his delusional behavior. Miles was found guilty last March and confined to a state psychiatric facility.
Violent hallucinations, combined with substance abuse and the lack of any treatment do increase the risk of violent behavior, Trangle said. He has led efforts in the east metro to improve police and medical personnel response to patients in mental health crises.
Mental illness itself, however, is not a good predictor of violent behavior, he stressed. "There's much more corroboration [in the media] between mental illness and violence than truly exists in the world."
Hanson said her son was seldom violent. Once, his delusions told him to kill his father and sexually assault her. Another time, he swung at a hospital security guard.
Time and daily medication have helped her son, who is under civil commitment and lives in an assisted-living facility. Hanson said he still easily drifts into the "dream world" of his delusions.
"When we don't keep him busy during the day ... he does go more into that dream world."
Greiling's son has stabilized and works as a janitor at Fort Snelling. She has sympathy for the parents of Loughner, who has now been charged in the rampage in which U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz was shot. Six people were killed.
It was a feeling she expressed on Twitter the morning after the murders.
"Rep. Giffords' shooter sounds like another case of untreated schizophrenia," she wrote. "Let's lament violence AND untreated mental illness."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.