Lynn Goodloe saw her son's grades begin to fall as he developed a knack for getting into mischief at a private Westside high school. Was it a phase, drugs or something more troubling?
Harold Turner didn't know what to make of his daughter's disorganized thinking and erratic behavior at Loyola Marymount University. Was her high level of stress typical of the college experience, or was something wrong?
"Being a teenager is by definition a crazy time," said Turner, so it can be hard for parents to know whether to be patient or persistent.
The eventual diagnosis for Goodloe's son and Turner's daughter was severe mental illness, and both are now in treatment. And for the past several years, Goodloe and Turner have devoted themselves to helping others identify mental health problems and begin the daunting task of figuring out how to get help.
I checked in with Goodloe and Turner because readers asked me to write about the lessons of the elementary school massacre in Connecticut. It's unclear what emotional or psychiatric issues the killer might have been dealing with, but as readers point out, mental illness has played a role in a number of unfathomable mass killings.
Of course, it's important to remember that the vast majority of people with a mental illness do not commit crimes. And the way I see it, the greatest insanity in this country is our irrational love of guns, their easy accessibility and the cowardly refusal of elected officials to address the issue.
You want crazy? Consider the NRA CEO's cowboy call for a national posse, with armed volunteers in every school. If the NRA had its way, Big Bird would patrol Sesame Street with an assault rifle.
But none of that means we should ignore mental illness. So let me get back to some practical advice from Goodloe and Turner, as well as from Dr. Mark DeAntonio, a UCLA psychiatrist for children and adolescents.
DeAntonio said parents should take note if a child suddenly becomes less communicative or more isolated.
"When you have a 16-year-old … who's enthusiastic about school, and then in the sophomore or junior year doesn't want to do anything but sit in his room and play games on the Internet, that's a concern," said DeAntonio. "You want to see them" engaging with friends, thinking beyond high school and developing "plans, schemes, ideas."
So how does a parent know the difference between a computer addiction, a bad week and a mental or emotional disorder? Try to keep communicating, said DeAntonio, and take to heart the observations of adults you trust who come into contact with your child. Not that those observations are as easy to come by as they once were, he added, because schools have dealt with budget woes by getting rid of nurses, librarians, music instructors, counselors and coaches.
"These people can offer a different viewpoint because they're seeing different parts of kids," said DeAntonio. "When you get down to the bare minimum for efficiency, a lot gets lost in the social fabric of a school and it's easier to fall through the cracks, absolutely."
Nearly eight years ago, when I befriended a man who'd been diagnosed decades earlier with schizophrenia, I didn't know what I was getting myself into or where to turn for help. The same was true for Goodloe and Turner, who eventually found their way to the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, an education and advocacy group that helps families navigate the system to find help for their loved ones.
"It was NAMI that saved us. It wasn't a psychiatrist or a psychologist," said Goodloe, a medical doctor who was flummoxed by the byzantine and fragmented mental health system, even with help from her daughter, a lawyer. "We decided that if this was happening to us, it must be happening to thousands of others, so we started our own chapter."
Goodloe and the late author Bebe Moore Campbell were among the founders of Urban NAMI Los Angeles. Ten years later, Goodloe is the board president and Turner is programs director, and they're expanding their reach through connections at churches and community centers.
A vast array of new mental health services was made possible in California by a 2004, voter-approved tax on millionaires. But Goodloe says mental health "continues to be the stepchild" of the American healthcare system, and her chapter is flooded with pleas for help from people whose loved ones are on waiting lists for treatment. Many of the callers are among the working poor, she said, and they either have no health insurance or their policies don't cover mental health services.
Urban NAMI offers counseling and referrals to clinics, psychologists and psychiatrists. Its signature program is a free, 12-week family-to-family course that offers indispensable training and support from group leaders who have already been through "the whole shebang," as Goodloe puts it.
That's important, Goodloe said, because in the United States, mental illness is often criminalized, with jails and prisons filled with people whose underlying and often untreated issue is a mental illness.
Turner came to understand that intimately after his schizophrenic daughter stabbed her sister, and prosecutors were far more interested in obtaining a criminal conviction than in trying to understand the young woman's well-documented, 10-year struggle with mental illness.
What are the lessons of Connecticut?
Too many guns, not enough mental health support. NAMI's national director wrote to President Obama after the shooting, advocating for improved early identification and intervention for those with a mental illness, more school-based mental health services and true mental health parity in healthcare plans.
If you have concerns about a loved one, contact your physician or your county mental health department. If you don't get immediate help, call (800) 950-NAMI (6264) or go to http://www.nami.org, a great resource for information on symptoms and treatments of all mental disorders, as well as a link to the NAMI chapter nearest you.
One thing you'll learn, Turner said, is that although "you're in it for the long haul," with proper help, many mental disorders can be managed and lives can be improved.
"There's hope," he said. "You can't do this if you think it's hopeless."