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How to recognize signs of mental illness in your family: Newtown tragedy gives us pause

On Friday, 20 children and six adults lost their lives in a volley of gunfire at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn

The 20-year-old shooter — barely out of childhood himself — later took his own life. His mother, Nancy Lanza, had already been shot and killed earlier that morning.

Though details of Adam Lanza's life are just emerging, he has been described as a "loner," "withdrawn," and a young man with great social anxiety.

"He was very different and very shy and didn't make an effort to interact with anybody," classmate Olivia DeVivo tells the Associated Press. "Now looking back, it's kind of like `OK, he had all these signs,' but you can't say every shy person would do something like this."

Also see: Will school shootings become parents' worst nightmare?

Mental illness conversation post-Newtown shooting

Much of the conversation that has sprung up over a long, difficult weekend appears to categorize all mental illness as though it's some uniform entity. It's an extremely dangerous opinion to hold.

"We can't lump all people with mental illness together into one big 'crazy' pot, it stigmatizes the ill and disconnects us, as a society, from their humanity," writes Jezebel's Laura Beck.

She's right. For starters, we don't even know what Lanza may or may not have been suffering from, or many of the details that ultimately led to his actions on Friday morning.

What we do know is that mental illness is an incredibly complex, varied and vital issue and a more informed, sensitive approach is necessary in order to help those suffering feel safe enough to get the assistance they need.

"We need to support them and we need to care for them, not leave them alone," Dr. David Samadi tells Fox News.

This motivation is part of a flurry of articles that have sprung up this weekend about how to recognize the signs of mental illness in a family member and what to about it. 

Also see: Child witness accounts of Newtown shooting

Difficult to recognize

Children's Mental Health Ontario urges parents to recognize the symptoms for early identification before things get out of hand, though they acknowledge that this is easier said than done.

"It's easy to recognize when a child has a fever. How to respond is well documented and medical help is readily available if the fever spikes," reads an article on their website.

"But a child's mental health is different. It can be difficult to distinguish between 'normal' problems that all children and adolescents experience from time to time, and behaviour that may be indicative of a mental heath disorder." 

Also see: Talking to kids about tragedy: video

Signs to look for

Issues like slipping grades, difficulty sleeping, appetite loss and rebellion against authority can all be part of the regular spectrum of adolescent behaviour, they say.

Where parent should take note, however, is if these symptoms persist over long periods of time, are intense in nature, or start to interfere with your child's life.

Signs of more intense mental illness, like schizophrenia or severe psychosis, can present an even more troubling landscape.

Research suggests that distorted thinking, excessive anxiety, paranoia and hearing or seeing imaginary things  may suggest a more serious mental health disorder.

Pediatrics journal also surveyed more than 6,000 children to come up with a list of 11 warning signs.

These signs include drastic changes in behaviour or personality, feeling sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks, severe, out-of-control behaviour where the child threatens to hurt him or herself (or others), and sudden, overwhelming fear for no reason.

Also see: Newton shooting makes me want to cry, yell, and hug my child

What to do if signs are present

Speaking to a trusted doctor, social worker, therapist or qualified healthcare professional is often the first step.

Parents For Children's Mental Health in Waterloo Region offers tips on how to find the right counsellor or therapist for your child, but suggests that finding a support group for parents can also be paramount.

But first, talking to your kids about mental illness when they're ready is key so that they learn not to stigmatize it in others and feel safe coming to you with their own concerns if the need arises.

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