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Posted on February 24, 2020 at 8:35 AM

This past weekend, I watched A Dangerous
Son
, Liz Garbus’ documentary about the overwhelming obstacles that U.S.
parents—especially mothers—face in getting help for their mentally ill children.
   The film follows three mothers who in the
course of the filming each face a barrage of insults, death threats, and violent
behavior from their critically mentally ill adolescent sons.
  In the face of this, each of these mothers
advocate fiercely for their sons to gain access to mental and behavioral health
services while simultaneously trying to keep themselves and other family
members safe at home.
  Viewers are
granted intimate—and at times deeply painful—access to the devastating
realities of day-to-day life with severe mental illness and the toll it takes
on the entire family unit.
 

The specters of gun violence and recent mass
shootings loom in the background the film. 
Garbus makes explicit reference to the 2012 Newtown, CT and Aurora, CO massacres,
and the viewer is primed to realize that the threats of violence toward self or
others that each of the profiled boys makes during the course of the filming
could be empty threats or the next national tragedy.  This troubling uncertainty is one of many—the
uncertainty of gaining access to quality treatment, the uncertainty that
treatment will prove effective with these boys, the uncertainty surrounding
whether these boys will reach adulthood and what that adulthood will look
like.    

Uncertainty also extends to the social and
policy realms, as professionals and laypeople alike struggle with how to provide
mental health care in an effective and cost-efficient way.  The abiding stigma of mental illness
certainly complicates things further and likely leads to the shame, isolation,
and disintegration of relationships we see in all three of the film’s featured
families.  But what lacks all uncertainty
is the fact that untreated or undertreated mental illness is damaging to the
individual, to the family, and to the greater society.  

A shift in public attitudes toward a more
nuanced understanding of mental illness will not solve everything, but it is an
essential feature of moving forward. 
Toward the end of the documentary, Dr. Andrew Solomon, a psychologist
and mental health activist, highlights what I take to be the critical lesson of
the film.  He says:

There is a sort of
politics and a reality that are often in conflict. Most people with mental
illnesses, most people with autism, most people with any of this variety of
conditions, which we largely describe as brain diseases of one kind or another,
will never hurt anyone. If we talk too much about those dangerous situations, we
stigmatize people we shouldn’t. 
If we take a politically correct standpoint. and we don’t
acknowledge those situations, then we end up with families in which a child is
terrifying and violent and nobody believes them, and they don’t understand what
it is they have to deal with. It’s a very fine balance we need to strike. I
think what we forget most of all when someone is violent and when they have a
serious mental illness, is that we’ve failed them…We need to understand that
treatment before tragedy is not only possible, but it should become our
reality.  And that’s—it’s gonna take some
tough conversations.
 

A Dangerous Son helps to initiate this tough conversation.  Now it’s our turn to keep the conversation going.

 

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