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The Struggle Of Finding Help For 'A Dangerous Son'

Bill, Amy, Edie and William (from left) are one of the families featured in the documentary <em>A Dangerous Son</em>.
Courtesy of HBO
Bill, Amy, Edie and William (from left) are one of the families featured in the documentary A Dangerous Son.

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.

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James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.