Assault weapons are a cannard. They really are irrelevant to the trauma of repeated mass killings by deranged white kids. We had the spectacular primal scream of Liza Long, whose article, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” has gone viral. Now there is Deborah Gordon. She actually is a friend of my neighbor. Ms Gordon writes in a similar vein to Ms. Long:

I’ve been treated for major depression for 22 years.

I tell you all this because it’s time that those of us with psychiatric diagnoses cut the chains of stigma that keeps mental illness locked in a closet, relegated to whispers, viewed as a sign of weakness, poor parenting, indulgence. Just as it’s time to have an honest discussion about gun control in this country, it’s also time to have an honest discussion about our mental health system.

We still don’t know if Adam Lanza, who killed 26 women and children last week and then shot himself, had been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. But I’m pretty sure there is a mental illness in there somewhere. I’m pretty sure his mother went through hell trying to find him treatment and help. And I’m pretty sure she was stymied at every turn.

I know this because I’m watching my friend go through the same thing with her 9-year-old son. Like the heartbreaking essay by Liza Long now circulating widely on Facebook, my friend has a son with serious mental health issues. One day he’s a lovely, smart, kind little boy. The next he’s completely out of control, a danger to himself and those around him. He’s threatened suicide. Called his parents words he shouldn’t even know the meaning of. Spent days pretending he’s a monkey.

My friend is lucky in one way. She has enough money to pay for testing, psychiatrists, special schools, a full-time “shadow” at school, most of which her health insurance doesn’t pay for. She has her own business, so she can take time off several times a week for the multitude of doctor and therapist appointments, when the school calls and says her son is out of control and must be picked up, for the research needed to understand what the doctors and therapists tell her. . . .

It’s a losing fight. A mental health expert told NPR last year that more Americans receive mental health treatment in prisons and jails than in hospitals or treatment centers, and that the three largest inpatient psychiatric facilities in the country are in jails.

We need options for families like my friend’s. We need better research into the mental health issues of children. We need clinical studies on drugs and therapies for these kids.

But more than anything, we need to cut the chains of stigma around mental health issues, come out of the closet, share our stories, and demand that we pay the same attention to depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, and the plethora of other mental health diagnoses that we pay to cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Because while guns kill people, mental illness is typically what drives someone to pick up that gun in the first place.

A Jewish friend of mine was on the verge of proposing a ban on assault rifles but, when I brought up the case of Israel and the prevalence of assault rifles in the hands of reservists throughout the country, he calmed down. The “gun culture” in Israel is quite different from the “gun culture” here in the states. More telling–mental health services are readily available in Israel and not in the United States.

The problem of crazy middle class boys, largely caucasian, carrying out mass attacks is rare but real. The fix is not in a new law. Laws don’t fix crazy. If any good has come out of the massacre of children it is this–a growing number of Americans are now aware of the troubled kids like Adam. Let’s spot them and get them help and at least keep them from getting a weapon in their hands.

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Larry C. Johnson is a former analyst at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, who moved subsequently in 1989 to the U.S. Department of State, where he served four years as the deputy director for transportation security, antiterrorism assistance training, and special operations in the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. He left government service in October 1993 and set up a consulting business. He currently is the co-owner and CEO of BERG Associates, LLC (Business Exposure Reduction Group) and is an expert in the fields of terrorism, aviation security, and crisis and risk management, and money laundering investigations. Johnson is the founder and main author of No Quarter, a weblog that addresses issues of terrorism and intelligence and politics. NoQuarterUSA was nominated as Best Political Blog of 2008.