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Sandy hook shooting: Was Adam Lanza lashing out against treatment? (+video)

Two media reports suggest that Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza's mother was seeking mental-health treatment for him – perhaps including involuntary commitment. Experts say seeking treatment against someone's will is fraught with difficulties.

By Staff writer / December 19, 2012

Firefighters salute as a hearse passes for the funeral procession of 7-year-old Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Daniel Gerard Barden Wednesday in Newtown, Conn. Daniel was killed when Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children, before killing himself.

David Goldman/AP

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Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza may have been motivated by anger at his mother because of plans to have him committed for treatment, Fox News reported Thursday, citing comments from the son of an area church pastor and an unnamed neighborhood source. Fox also cited an unnamed senior law enforcement official saying anger at plans for “his future mental-health treatment” were being investigated as a possible motive.

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While the Fox reports are still uncorroborated, other media reports paint a general picture that suggests Ms. Lanza was growing increasingly concerned about the mental health of her son.

These reports are bringing to light a debate over where to set the bar when it comes to forcing an individual into treatment – and whether those caring for people with mental-health issues have enough resources available to head off potential crises before they happen.

On one hand, warning signs are often apparent, so making it easier to commit someone for involuntary treatment could save lives.

The young adult men who end up being violent often “have others in their lives … who are trying desperately to get help before something bad happens. They can see it coming down the pike,” says Liza Gold, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. But caregivers “have run up against these commitment laws that are so restrictive – that come down so far on the side of civil liberties and privacy – that it is almost impossible to contain, hospitalize, treat someone with a chronic and escalating mental illness.”

On the other hand, forced treatment can also be emotionally wrenching for the patient and cause lingering anger, mental-health experts say.

“People who are forcibly treated so often feel traumatized by it,” says Robert Whitaker, author of “Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America.” “Women in particular will sometimes talk about it almost like a quasi-rape, because sometimes they are held down and injected,” he says.

For its part, Connecticut leans strongly toward supporting the civil liberties of individuals, making involuntary treatment difficult. It is one of six states that does not provide the option of "assisted outpatient treatment,” which allows qualifying individuals to receive court-ordered treatment in the community without being committed to a facility.

Moreover, an individual needs to be dangerous before intervention is possible. The state’s standard does not take into consideration an individual’s past psychiatric history, such as repeated hospitalizations or symptoms of psychiatric deterioration that could culminate in violence.

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