Having a 36-year-old son who believes he is God has taken a toll on Sue Hanson.
If she calls police in Maple Grove, Minn., to take him to a hospital, her son might not believe that the officers or their bullets can hurt him. Left alone, he might wander away, believing he can make it to another planet.
"When you're God, you know, all things are possible," his mother lamented.
Parents such as Hanson and her husband have unique perspectives on the shootings in Tucson, Ariz. While they haven't endured the pain of having a child linked to a mass murder, they can relate to the tales of bizarre behaviors or his fixation with wild conspiracies.
They also have unique insight into the national question of the week: How could Jared Loughner's parents not have seen this coming?
If Loughner suffers from a severe mental disorder such as schizophrenia -- and his reported behaviors hints he does -- it wouldn't be strange for his parents to miss it, they said.
First is the matter of recognition.
"You don't want to believe it," said Hanson said, whose son is under civil commitment and lives in an assisted-living facility. "It's a difficult thing to get your head around if you haven't been exposed to mental illness -- and most of us have not."
Hanson said her son's first "psychotic break" 16 years ago was obvious: He claimed he was Jesus.
For others, the signs weren't as clear. When Mindy Greiling's son started acting strangely several years ago, she suspected drug use. Mental illness seemed far-fetched -- until she had to call police because her son, then 21, was wrecking her house.
Hopeful parents can dismiss delusions, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness' Minnesota chapter. "Even if you see some signs in your child that something is off ... you might think it's just being rebellious."
Symptoms of mental disorders commonly emerge in the late teens or early 20s, particularly in men. Major life changes such as going to college or leaving home can trigger the disorders. While Loughner lived at home, others at this stage move away, making it harder for parents to detect.
Harder still is knowing when, as a parent, to intercede.
Dr. Michael Trangle, a psychiatrist for the HealthPartners Medical Group based in Bloomington, Minn., said parents need to set aside judgment. Instead, "Talk to the kids. 'Something seems a little different. Tell me what's going on here....' Talk in a gentle, supportive ... way."
Mental health law poses another challenge. Children 18 or older have the right to decide whether to receive treatment -- unlikely if they are delusional and don't believe anything is wrong. Parents aren't entitled to be informed of or involved in diagnosis or treatment.
Greiling's son was at the University of Montana, where a psychologist suspected schizophrenia. He couldn't share those findings with Greiling, who was shocked when her son returned home.
The next problem was obtaining mental health care. Greiling, like many parents, was advised to call police when her son was actively delusional. But when she called because her son was breaking things at her house, the police initially wouldn't take him to a hospital, saying he wasn't a danger to himself or others.
Greiling, a Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor state representative, later promoted changes to state law so that substantial property damage, and not just bodily harm, could justify hospital confinement and civil commitment proceedings.
Parents still complain that the system requires mentally ill children to "fail first," either by hurting themselves or breaking the law.
Trangle has led community efforts to improve police and medical personnel response to patients in mental health crises.
Mental illness itself, however, is not a good predictor of violent behavior, he stressed. "There's much more corroboration (in the media) between mental illness and violence than truly exists in the world."
Greiling's son has stabilized and works as a janitor at Fort Snelling. She has sympathy for the parents of Loughner, who has been charged in the rampage in which U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot. Six people were killed.
It was a feeling Greiling expressed on Twitter the morning after the murders.
"Rep. Giffords' shooter sounds like another case of untreated schizophrenia," she wrote. "Let's lament violence AND untreated mental illness."
(Contact Jeremy Olson at Jeremy.olson(at)startribune.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)