A new HBO documentary tells a story about families with children who have psychiatric disorders that lead to violent behavior.
A Dangerous Son, which premieres Monday, focuses on three families who are dealing with the simultaneous challenges of handling children prone to lashing out while looking for treatment that is not always available.
"I don't know how to control my anger," 10-year-old Ethan says in one clip.
Ethan, now 16, is one of the film's subjects. His mother Stacy Shapiro says he struggles with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, intermittent explosive disorder and anxiety. His aggressive behavior started between ages 2 and 3, she says.
He lashes out frequently over small things — a scene in the movie of him hitting and shouting in the car is "a daily occurrence for us, sometimes multiple times a day," Shapiro tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro on Weekend Edition.
They sent Ethan to a residential mental health facility, which is documented in the film. That's not an option for many families, as there aren't enough beds in many areas.
The experience wasn't great, Shapiro says. "I don't feel safe and I don't think that he is ready to come home," she says she told the facility at one point while he was there.
She says his behavior was "no better when he came home."
The film's director Liz Garbus wanted to show how challenging this situation is both for the child and the family. Often, people assume a child's behavior is a type of parental failure. "Destigmatizing families like Stacy's who are going through this and seeing how hard they're trying is really important," Garbus tells Garcia-Navarro.
Garbus also cautions against assumptions that mental illness leads to violence — people with mental illness are more likely to be "victims of violence than perpetrators of violence," she says.
"It is an enormous weight on one person" in Shapiro's case and similar ones, Garbus tells NPR.
"Rehabilitation in this country is something that is very expensive, but the costs of not doing are worse. And so that's why we made the film. You listen to Stacy, she loves her son, she loves her other children. She's being put in a nearly impossible situation — the beds aren't there."
The filmmakers talked with Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds, whose 24-year-old son stabbed and seriously wounded him before taking his own life in 2013. Even a prominent politician like Deeds had difficulty getting his son the help he needed, Garbus says.
Finding crisis care in situations like Deeds' can be "like a labyrinth," Ron Honberg of the National Alliance on Mental Illness told NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell in 2013. "Families are basically left to fend for themselves" if there isn't space in a psychiatric hospital.
Shapiro says that after the filming ended, Ethan's been doing better. She found a school to help deal with his mental health issues.
Parents who suspect children of having serious mental health issues should start trying to get help immediately, Shapiro says, as "there are so many kids now being diagnosed that the wait lists are so long."
There were times she had to call the police on her son. Shapiro says they were helpful; they helped to "de-escalate" Ethan. And unfortunately, she needed to have a paper trail to prove the problem was ongoing "when he got older and things got worse."
Many people of color would hesitate to do the same. Garbus acknowledges, "if you're an African-American family, calling in the police officers won't always go the same way it would in Stacy's case."
For other families dealing with the same situation, finding support networks on social media like Facebook groups is "vital," Shapiro says.
"Especially when you feel like you're alone. And it is a lonely, lonely place to be to be this kind of mom."
Part of the goal of the documentary was to raise attention to what these families face on a daily basis: "Bringing it out into the sunlight, into the daylight and not keeping it hidden away and people feeling ashamed," Garbus says.
NPR's Sarah Handel and Viet Le produced and edited the audio of this story.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Stacy Shapiro of Everett, Wash., came to our New York studios a couple of days ago...
STACY SHAPIRO: Can you hear me OK?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...To talk about her son Ethan. He's 16, and he struggles with - well, a lot.
SHAPIRO: Autism, ADHD and ODD and newly, IED, which is intermittent explosive disorder, and anxiety.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that tangle of disorders can sometimes create violent situations for Stacy, for others and for Ethan.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A DANGEROUS SON")
ETHAN: If only there was a lifeguard who could help me try to control myself because they save everyone, even when they drown.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A new HBO documentary "A Dangerous Son" follows Stacy and two other families as each desperately seeks treatment, a lifeguard for a child with behavioral disorders. Director Liz Garbus was also in the studio. In the film's opening scene, Stacy is driving Ethan, then age 10, and her younger daughter when Ethan lashes out.
SHAPIRO: What you saw in the car - it was a daily occurrence. Sometimes multiple, directly towards my daughter or myself mostly, but anybody who might have, you know, gotten under his skin for whatever the reason.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sort of hitting and shouting and...
SHAPIRO: Yes. And it was really difficult because people would constantly look at me and try to judge me or think they could do a better job or tell me all the reasons why he's probably like that. But they weren't in my shoes, and there was very little I could do. It got to such a point where I knew I was doing the wrong thing at times, like, giving in. But I was too scared not to because I physically and mentally couldn't handle the aftermath of what would happen if I didn't.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you struggled to get him help. And one of the - he ended up going to a residential facility, but there aren't that many beds in most states. I mean, there just aren't the places to give people the help they need.
SHAPIRO: That's true. And the one that he went to, which is featured in the film - it wasn't the greatest experience. In fact, I was hoping for much more when he came out. I remember saying to them at one point, please tell me if my son needs to be somewhere else. If it's just that you can't keep him longer because I don't feel safe and I don't think that he is ready to come home. And they, like, would not - they wouldn't say that either. But he was still having violent behaviors before he left there. So I felt, like, OK, his time is up, and he has to go, more than, he's ready to go home, but that's the story you're feeding me. So I felt a huge injustice there, and it was no better when he came home.
LIZ GARBUS: It's a lot.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a lot.
GARBUS: Yeah, and Stacy is sitting - I mean, you know, as soon as she starts talking, her eyes are welling up with tears. There's an enormous weight on one person. It's a lot, and that's why we made the film.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, tell me. Tell me why you made the film.
GARBUS: Rehabilitation in this country is something that is very expensive, but the costs of not doing it are worse. And so that's why we made the film. You listen to Stacy - she loves her son. She loves her other children. She's being put in a nearly impossible situation. The beds aren't there. We also talk in the film about a state senator...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Creigh Deeds in Virginia.
GARBUS: ...Whose son was mentally ill, was threatening to hurt himself, hurt his father. This is a state senator - couldn't get a bed for his child when his child was in crisis. And his child ended up shooting him and taking his own life. And I'll just say one more thing we say in the film - and it's important to foreground all of this with - is that, you know, children with mental health issues are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence. And, you know, of course, the greater danger than them hurting anybody on the outside is them hurting themselves or those around them. So the outliers are these stories that are in the news. That doesn't make it OK to not discuss the situations that Stacy and the other mothers in the film find themselves in.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Stacy, what advice do you have for parents who might have children dealing with similar issues to Ethan?
SHAPIRO: Well, one thing I would say because I have met quite a few people - unfortunately, I don't know that they're in denial. But if you suspect something, please don't wait. Get the help, especially because there are so many kids now being diagnosed that the wait lists are so long because the earlier the intervention starts, the better. And also, if they do have severe behaviors, please don't be afraid to get your local law enforcement involved. I know it seems extreme. But for me, Ethan has never gone to jail. But just having them there had, A, helped de-escalate him and, sadly, did create the kind of paper trail I needed when he got older, and things got worse, when I had to take bigger action - that they could see that this was an ongoing problem, and it didn't just start.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think, Liz, needs to happen to help kids like the ones in your film?
GARBUS: You know, the involvement of law enforcement, you know, obviously, in Stacy's case was a positive. In many other cases, it's been a negative. So it's definitely not a cure-all. I mean, what - you know, it would be much better if there was a number to call in which, you know, there was a SWAT team of medical professionals who would come in rather than police officers. You know, of course, if you're an African-American family calling, the police officers won't always go the same way it would in Stacy's case. I mean, and that's a reality for families of color. So, I mean, I think that, you know, one thing - isolation is terrible. So destigmatizing families like Stacy's who are going through this and seeing how hard they're trying is really important. And then, you know, on state levels, there need to be more beds available, and we need to have crisis prevention for these families.
SHAPIRO: And I also want to add, find a network like Facebook groups or other people because that support - it's vital, especially when you feel like you're alone. And it is a lonely, lonely place to be to be this kind of mom.
GARBUS: Bringing it out into the sunlight into the daylight and not keeping it hidden away people and feeling ashamed.
SHAPIRO: And I don't think they should have to feel ashamed.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you both have done that. That's Liz Garbus and Stacy Shapiro. The documentary is "A Dangerous Son." And it debuts on HBO on Monday. Thank you so much.
GARBUS: Thank you for having us.
SHAPIRO: Yes, thank you very much. I very much appreciated the opportunity to speak with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.