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Newtown shooting

Honey, I'm scared of the kid

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The Adam Lanza shooting has sparked a debate on the link between mental illness and violence. However, experts say they are more likely to be victims than perpetrators.

Prema J is 66 years old. She lives in a tony suburb of Mumbai with her youngest son while her older children are in the US. Her seemingly stable life story, however, has a dark spot: her youngest suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and, worse, believes she is the enemy. He once tried to smother her with a pillow while she was asleep and, at another time, slapped her so hard that she fell and fractured her ankle. The slightly built woman is clearly no match for her 35-year-old son's physical prowess and herein lies an issue that is seldom discussed in the open: when fear stalks the parent-child bond.

After years of caring and deciding for her son, Prema suddenly found that she was no longer in control in the relationship. Her son would take or stop medicines at will. "The flashes of violence, " a family friend told TOICrest, "showed he wasn't taking his medicines regularly. And there was nothing that Prema could do to ensure that her 35-year-old listened to her. " A frightened Prema decided to lock her bedroom at night instead.

This "fear" angle is suddenly a topic of much discussion following the tragedy in Connecticut last week in which a youngster with special needs gunned down 26 people. "When parents are afraid of their children, " said American websites and newspapers after Adam Lanza, who had Asperger's Syndrome that is characterised by high IQ and low social skills, began his killing spree by pumping four bullets into his sleeping mother, Nancy. Nancy was apparently an intensely involved parent, prompting people to wonder why Adam killed her.

The Connecticut carnage prompted an American blogger, Liza Long, to write a personal account of how she has been time and again been threatened by her genius son, Michael. Long wrote that 13-year-old Michael had at various times used a knife, threatened to jump out of a moving car and told her that he would get his "revenge". Her fright was apparent as she wrote about training her younger sons to lock themselves up in the car whenever Michael flared up.

Long published a photograph of Michael, saying, "I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza's mother. I am Dylan Klebold's and Eric Harris's mother. I am James Holmes's mother. I am Jared Loughner's mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho's mother. And these boys - and their mothers - need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it's easy to talk about guns. But it's time to talk about mental illness. "

Long's blog that was reproduced in another website brought forth a flurry of criticism from parents who felt she had violated her son's right to privacy by talking about his problems and attaching his photo as well.

Do parents in India talk about being "frightened" of their children as well? Yes, say experts. A therapist working in the field of autism confesses she is worried about a handful of children whom she trains. "There is a 13-year-old in my care who is extremely volatile. His mother can no longer handle him because he starts biting himself when the situation isn't to his liking, " she says. She is worried that the boy will in a rage do something to harm her like poke a pencil into her eye. In another case, a mother was frightened to say anything to annoy her son because he would start scraping his skin. "He has drawn blood so many times that it's scary to think what he will do next. "

However, experts say that children with special needs have sensory issues as well as problems expressing themselves. "As they cannot express themselves, they cannot manage their anger and it builds up, " said the counsellor.
But the violent streak, say the experts, is not confined to mentally ill patients alone. "Studies have shown that people who have mental or neurological problems are not any more violent than so-called normal people, " says psychiatrist Harish Shetty from Mumbai's Hiranandani Hospital. Dr Aachal Bhagat from Indraprastha Apollo in New Delhi says anecdotal cases cannot be used to generalise that mentally ill patients are violent. "There may be a stray incident but it is a myth to link mental health and violence, " he adds.

The Canadian Mental Health Association's summation on violence and the mentally ill is categorical : "As a group, people with mental health issues are not more violent than any other group in our society. " The association stated that the majority of crimes are not committed by people with psychiatric illness, and multiple studies have proven that there is very little relationship between most of these diseases and violence. "The real issue is the fact that people with mental illness are two and a half to four times more likely to be the victims of violence than any other group in our society, " according to the Canadian experts.

Delhi-based Merry Barua from Action For Autism finds the correlation disturbing. "Many times, we get parents coming in with beautiful children who they say are horrible. Some doctors label such children psychotic, but the point is, has anyone tried to understand why the child is behaving so?" asked Barua. Usually, the so-called violent act - like Long's son picked up a knife to threaten her - is a cry for help. "While talking about one boy with Asperger's Syndrome killing people, let's also look at the number of Asperger's Syndrome children who have committed suicide because they are just not understood by society. "

Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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