Troubled teenager, desperate parents

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Nothing I have read in the past month has had a more profound effect on me than the ordeal of an ordinary couple in the Midwest trying their best to get help for their son — a young man with autism who’s a social outcast at school, a pale boy who loves death metal, who’s run afoul of the law, and who’s posted angry Internet rants threatening to shoot up a church, a school or a mosque.

Talk about chilling.

Ever since Columbine High School, we as a society have been quick to judge — and judge harshly — the parents of youthful mass shooters who unleash their rage and resentments on innocent victims.

Where were the parents? Why didn’t they know about their child’s violent fantasies? How could they miss signals of their evil intentions?

In the case of Shelly, 54, and Gary, 63, a couple who’ve already raised an older son with mental illness, they are fully aware of the threat posed by their younger son, Shea. That’s why, even after years of testing, advocating and treatment, they have laid bare their efforts in a desperate attempt to get him help before he hurts someone or kills himself, as he’s threatened to do.

The couple’s predicament is the subject of a riveting piece in the March issue of Esquire. (I meant to write about this earlier and I’m finally doing so, just as the calendar flips to a new month.) Titled “A Troubled Boy,” it’s written by Tom Chiarella, who teaches at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, the same college where I once spent a week as Journalist-in-Residence working with the student newspaper staff.

troubled boy - esquire

Shea’s troubles — including vandalism of local churches and a court-ordered curfew for fighting in school — have made the news in this small town of 10,000, prompting his parents to go public with their concerns not just for their son, but for other parents whose boys need therapy for their mental health issues. They’ve taken to recording his outbursts and shared them with Chiarella.

“The two of them hunker down at the table, listening to his rants, which have grown more frequent in recent weeks, into exhaustive and thorough threats of rampage. And this horseshit prose poem of filthy Internet tropes about Arabs? It spouts from the mouth of their very own boy. The parents know what they must do. They have to warn someone.”

Shea attempted suicide when he was 14. Now 18, his parents cannot simply institutionalize him, so he is caught between two alternatives — an underfunded, overwhelmed mental health system and a “predictably outsized and overwhelming” response from local law enforcement.

As mass shootings continue unabated in the United States, politicians repeatedly pledge to seek increased funding for mental health programs but never seem to follow through. It’s numbing because it’s just so much posturing.

As Chiarella points out, close to 10 percent of state psychiatric hospital beds were eliminated across the country between 2009 and 2012 due to budget cuts. In Indiana, the decline in mental health spending has been worse than in most states.

In 2009, the state’s per-capita mental health spending was $87.65, well below the national average of $122.90, Chiarella reports. By 2013, it had fallen to $70.67, placing Indiana 39th in the nation.

This lack of resources has only added to the stresses on Shea’s parents, forcing them to warn the authorities about the potential dangers posed by a son they love but cannot seem to reach.

“Sitting in his living room,” Chiarella writes, “I ask Shea: Would he really kill someone?”

“He sits in sweatpants, with a home-detention monitor clamped to his ankle, once again tearing into his parents’ peaceable hearts without seeming to know it….He’s autistic, and as such he’s often plainly disconnected from what he says. He doesn’t seem to know what hurts his parents, and he certainly doesn’t seem to know what effect the words he says have on his life or the lives of others.”

Chilling, Absorbing. Heart-wrenching. This is a terrific piece, one that reveals the anguish of parents who could be any of us.

Lead photograph: mimwickett / rgbstock.com

Esquire photograph: Eric Ogden

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