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Tim Blagg

Blagg: A limit on rights?

We found out some more details the other day about Adam Lanza, the Newtown, Conn., man who murdered 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School back in December of last year.

They were chilling.

It turns out that in fifth grade, Lanza wrote a book that included tales of children being slaughtered and a son shooting his mother in the head. In the years that followed, he was obsessed with mass murders — assembling articles, photos, books, footage and violent video games, including one in which players gun down students in school. He even kept a spreadsheet ranking mass murders.

In retrospect, he was a man who might, indeed, have been predicted to be a mass murderer himself.

But surely there are hundreds, if not thousands of individuals who indulge in similar activities that never kill their mother and then go out and gun down dozens of innocent children.

Let’s stop a minute and think about the conundrum faced by Lanza’s mother, Nancy, as she tried to cope with her son’s disease.

He had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which by itself is not associated with an increased propensity for violent behavior. However, Lanza had in recent years developed symptoms of a more severe mental illness that occurs in approximately 5 percent of individuals who have autism-like symptoms or mental retardation in childhood.

This mental illness, which has psychotic features and is similar to schizophrenia, is associated with an increased propensity for violent acts if not treated.

But, like many people who exhibit paranoia, Adam refused to take his medications, believing that they were some form of poison.

If the Lanzas had lived in New York, Adam would have been subject to Kendra’s law, named for Kendra Webdale, a young woman killed in 1999 after being pushed in front of a subway train by a person with untreated schizophrenia.

Under Kendra’s law, people under outpatient treatment orders may be arrested and involuntarily hospitalized if they fail to comply with their treatment plans.

But the Lanzas lived in Connecticut, where commitment laws specify that a person can only be involuntarily committed for a psychiatric evaluation if he is “dangerous,” and do not include a provision for outpatient commitment.

In the balancing act between the good of society and the rights of an individual, Connecticut protected Adam’s rights — but not the rights of those victims.

That meant that in order to force Adam to take his meds, his mother would have had to have him charged with a crime and should he be sentenced to prison, he would be forced to take his medication.

In Massachusetts — one of only five states, including Connecticut, in the nation with no equivalent to Kendra’s Law — legislation has been introduced that would allow clinicians to petition the courts for an order forcing a person with a documented history of severe mental illness to take medications designed to reduce the risk they might pose to themselves and others.

Much of the opposition to the bill has come from people with severe mental illnesses and their supporters who fear the loss of civil liberties. They argue that patients should have the right to refuse to take anti-psychotic medications that can have unpleasant side effects.

“We don’t want to be in a place where peoples’ rights are impacted,” said Lynda Cutrell, former president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “I have heard from many people who are afraid that this is going to involve something that is forced.”

Well, yes, it is.

And there is no doubt that some people’s rights will be abrogated in the process.

But can we really afford to sit back and continue to allow seriously ill people to refuse their medications, and in the process endanger others?

Absolute guarantees of civil rights in all cases can pose threats to society.

Just as we don’t allow people to shout “fire” in a crowded theater because of their First Amendment rights, neither can we always let the mentally ill judge for themselves what is the right course for them to follow.

Adam Lanza and others like him illustrate the dangers of that course.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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