As the gun control debate rages on in light of last week’s horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, another debate is thankfully gaining momentum: the discussion about mental health. Over the weekend, the mother of a violent, mentally ill 13-year-old boy published an essay that has gone viral. In “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” mom Liza Long recounts how her own troubled son recently pulled a knife and threatened to kill her. “I love my son,” writes Long. “But he terrifies me.”
Seventy-eight-year-old mom Ruth Seegrist knows firsthand how this story all too often ends.
On the day before Halloween in 1985, Ruth’s daughter Sylvia Seegrist visited Delaware County’s Springfield Mall. Armed with a Ruger semi-automatic rifle, she opened fire, killing a two-year-old boy and two adults and wounding seven others, including two young children.
The 25-year-old woman’s actions shocked the nation, but the people who knew her had no reason to be surprised. When she was a teenager, Sylvia had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She was hospitalized 12 times due to her illness. She stabbed one counselor in the back with a knife and tried to strangle her mother. Casual acquaintances nicknamed the young woman “Rambo” because of her anger issues and penchant for military fatigues.
Just months before the shooting, Ruth, who had been pleading unsuccessfully with doctors and authorities to lock up her unstable daughter, wrote a column in a Delaware County newspaper about her ordeal dealing with the system: “What do you need?” she asked. “Blood on the floor?” And then her psychotic daughter went to a local Best Products store, bought a semi-automatic gun, drove to the mall and started shooting.
Sylvia went to a psychiatric facility and then prison, where she will remain until she dies, and Ruth became an advocate for mental health reform. But nearly 30 years later, the system is still broken.
“We just don’t spend the money on treating the mentally ill the way we do with cancer and other chronic illnesses,” Ruth, who still lives in the area, told me on Sunday afternoon. “In Pennsylvania, a 14-year-old can wind up in a mental hospital and his own parents would not be able to find out what is wrong unless he or she gives written permission. Ultimately, unless someone is an immediate threat to himself or someone else, you just can’t do anything about it.”
Another Philadelphia-area mother who knows this all too well is the mother of 26-year-old Patrick Fischer. In August of last year, she called 911 to get her mentally ill son committed. Cops told her what paperwork she needed to fill out.
The next day, he walked outside of their Overbrook Farms home and murdered his neighbor with metal pruning shears. Patrick had recently been on probation stemming from 2009 convictions for assault, prowling, harassment and resisting arrest. He’s now been deemed incompetent to stand trial for the murder and is under evaluation at Norristown State Hospital, the same place that Seegrist was involuntarily committed—but only after she killed three people.
Although details on the mental health of Connecticut shooter Adam Lanza are still unclear, Ruth Seegrist says there simply had to be serious warning signs.
“Of course there were red flags,” she insists. “You know, it’s ironic that people who are irrational are expected under the law to get help on their own. There needs to be something in the law that compels a troubled person to be diagnosed by a psychiatrist. In the 1950s, we were institutionalizing people who weren’t mentally ill. You could institutionalize someone who was just unruly. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other.”