Have you followed the series of articles in The Times about Joshua Komisarjevsky, the Cheshire, Conn., 26-year-old who, on early parole for a long string of late-night home robberies, teamed up with an accomplice and broke into a nearby house, sexually assaulted a woman and at least one of her young daughters, beat the father with a baseball bat and left them all to die in a fire? (The father alone survived.)
Buried in a report on Tuesday was a sinister detail that piled on a broad insult to all the gruesome injuries, victimizing a whole new set of people who should have had no link whatsoever with Komisarjevsky’s crimes. It was that, while pleading for leniency for his client’s earlier break-ins, Komisarjevsky’s lawyer, William T. Gerace, had in 2002 told a judge that the young man suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the learning disabilities dyslexia and dysgraphia as a child.
A.D.H.D., dyslexia and dysgraphia — invoked as logical potential causes for home invasions and theft? I don’t know if you all find this as appalling, offensive and cruel as I do. Perhaps you shrug it off as the work of a defense lawyer doing his job. I just can’t do that, because I know that Gerace isn’t alone in supporting and promulgating the view that kids with problems like A.D.H.D. — and depression and perhaps soon, thanks to this case, learning disabilities — pose real dangers to society.
Call it the Columbine Syndrome. Ever since the news got out that school shooter Eric Harris was taking Luvox, an antidepressant, kids’ mental illness and eventual mass murder have been linked in the public mind. This past May, the journal Psychiatric Services published the results of the first large-scale nationally representative survey of public attitudes about children’s mental health. Eighty-one percent of respondents said they thought children with major depression would be dangerous to themselves or others; 33 percent said they believed children with A.D.H.D. were likely to be dangerous.
This despite the fact that scientific studies have shown only a modest relationship between mental health issues and violence, “a relationship that is largely attributable to co-occurring substance abuse,” wrote a team of authors led by Bernice A. Pescosolido, a sociologist at Indiana University. “Unfortunately,” they concluded, “public perceptions that mental illness and violence go hand in hand may be more important than the evidence.”
Another study released in March found about one in five parents saying they would not want children with A.D.H.D. or depression as their neighbors, in their child’s classroom or as their child’s friends.
It’s deeply ironic that at a time when more than ever is known about children’s mental health needs and more methods than ever exist to help kids with behavioral or emotional issues, the stigma attached to those problems won’t budge. Instead, our brave new world of diagnosis and treatment has spurred new kinds of myth-making and prejudice. Chief among them is the idea that a diagnosis of A.D.H.D. is an escape hatch for selfish and permissive modern parents who are too lazy to discipline their badly behaved kids and prefer instead to medicate them into compliance.
There are very serious consequences of trivializing conditions like A.D.H.D. There is real harm done by instrumentalizing disorders — whether it’s in the service of a legal defense, as in Komisarjevsky’s case, or more generally to buttress ideological arguments about the decline of the American family. The more the disorders are banalized or made ridiculous, the more parents and kids dealing with them are stigmatized. The net result of this stigma, according to numerous studies, is that families don’t seek the help they need. And children with A.D.H.D. need help — not because they’re at risk of becoming rapists and arsonists but because, untreated, they’re likely to be in for a lifetime of frustration and unhappiness.
Health officials at a local psychiatric hospital apparently tried once to put Komisarjevsky on antidepressants, but, according to The Times, his parents refused, saying their son needed to deal with his problems “on a spiritual level.” I don’t know whether Komisarjevsky’s behavior stems from sickness or from evil. But I do know there’s something sick, in general, about turning kids with difficulties into actors in the morality play about family life that’s forever being staged in our time.