Adam Lanza’s Civil Rights and Ours

by E. Fuller Torrey

The report released by Connecticut yesterday on Adam Lanza’s massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six adults in Newtown makes clear how well we protected his civil rights.

The report details his “mental health issues,” which in reality were strong evidence that he had developed a severe mental illness. He had been afflicted with an autism-like syndrome since childhood and had been formally diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder. This diagnosis by itself is not associated with an increased propensity for violent behavior. However, in recent years, Lanza had developed symptoms of a more severe mental illness, which 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. It includes delusional thinking, including a belief that others are trying to control your mind or hurt you. Adam Lanza’s bizarre behavior, including covering his bedroom windows, is consistent with such beliefs.

Adam Lanza was clearly in need of evaluation and treatment. Forty years ago, he would have been admitted to Fairfield State Hospital, which was located in Newtown, close to his home, and given a trial of antipsychotic medication to improve his symptoms. If he responded and continued to take his medication, he might have led a useful life, maybe as a computer programmer or in a similar job.

But Fairfield State Hospital was closed in 1995 as part of the deinstitutionalization movement and attempts by Connecticut to save state money. The theory was that people like Adam Lanza could be evaluated in the psychiatric unit of general hospitals, except that almost no general hospital in the United States has the specialized personnel needed to evaluate a person like Adam Lanza. Furthermore, it is no longer possible to get someone like Lanza into a psychiatric unit unless he agrees, which he wasn’t about to do. The commitment laws in Connecticut specify that a person can only be committed for a psychiatric evaluation if he is dangerous. Connecticut’s law does not include a “need for treatment” provision, as some states do. Connecticut’s laws do not even include a provision for outpatient commitment, as 45 other states do. 

So Connecticut protected the civil rights of Adam Lanza very effectively. The state legislature made it impossible to get treatment for him until he had demonstrated that he was dangerous. But by then, it was too late. And in zealously protecting his civil rights, the Connecticut legislature appears to have neglected the civil rights of 20 first graders and their families and the other six adults who were killed.

— Dr. Torrey is the author of American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System and is the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center.