Premieres Monday, May 7 at 8 PM ET/PT on HBO
One in ten American children suffers from serious emotional disturbance and more than 17 million have experienced a psychiatric disorder. A Dangerous Son focuses primarily on three families in crisis, each struggling with a child’s severe mental illness, desperately seeking treatment in the face of limited resources and support. The documentary exposes cracks in a system that fails too many families, with potentially devastating consequences for the child or for others.
A Dangerous Son highlights the cycle of counselor visits, medications, hospitalizations and encounters with law enforcement common to many children and families grappling with psychiatric disorders. The guilt and isolation parents feel can be overwhelming, as is the constant worry that their child may harm himself or herself, or others. And while treatment can greatly improve the outcome, appropriate care is often a luxury available only to those who can afford it, or who happen to live in states with free or affordable treatment. Emphasizing the importance of encouraging dialogue and providing care to those in need, the documentary focuses on three children with mental health and behavioral disorders. The documentary details their families’ ongoing struggles to obtain treatment for the behavioral problems they exhibit.
Ethan, a ten-year-old in Everett, Wash., wishes a “lifeguard” could save him from the uncontrollable anger that prompts outbursts in which he curses, hits his younger sister, Elexa, and violently pulls his mother Stacy’s hair. Ethan’s diagnoses include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and high-functioning autism, and he is deemed “in crisis” by a state agency, qualifying him for residential treatment. After months on a waiting list, he’s offered a place in Washington’s only state-funded residential program. Following six months of treatment, Ethan returns home, equipped with skills to help control his anger. But the transition is not an easy one. Within hours, he breaks a rule and lashes out at his mom. Six months later, Stacy, who’s now pregnant, says Ethan has been better after continuing in-home therapy, but she knows he could always regress.
Vontae, an 11-year-old in Los Angeles, is quiet and withdrawn. His mother, Cora, has found notes saying he wants to die and hurt other people. After Vontae threatens to get a gun and shoot a teacher, the family is visited by Tony Beliz, who heads up the School Threat Assessment Response Team of the LA County Department of Mental Health Emergency Outreach. Later, in a meeting, Beliz’s team says Vontae seems at risk of “suicide by cop.” Vontae’s unarmed father was shot by police, and Vontae often plays with a toy gun. After he is caught lighting fires around his apartment building, Vontae is detained by police and put in a group home. Vontae is then sent to live with an aunt when a court decides Cora’s other kids aren’t safe. Cora, who struggled with her own mental-health issues in the past, worries that Vontae is still not receiving adequate care.
Courtesy of HBO
William, a 15-year-old from Aurora, Colo., is grappling with severe mental and developmental challenges. At a meeting with his counselor, William’s divorced parents, Edie and Bill, tell William there is room for him in a group home, but he gets agitated and lashes out, leading Edie to call the police for help as a last resort. She says William started hearing voices at the onset of puberty and has become obsessed with James Holmes, the perpetrator of the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater. William is admitted to the group home and released several months later; things are good for a while, but deteriorate when William starts acting out, and Edie again calls the police. Although William’s mental-health professionals say he needs more time in a facility, the family’s Medicaid has run out, leaving few options. Edie hopes that with structure William might be able to live semi-independently one day, but worries there will be an accident, or he’ll harm himself.
Among the mental-health experts and advocates interviewed in the documentary are: Dr. Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health; Andrew Solomon, author of “Far from the Tree”; Virginia state senator Creigh Deeds, whose 24-year-old son Gus stabbed him before killing himself; and Liza Long, author of the essay “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” who speaks about her own struggles dealing with her son’s mental health crises.