Are We Doing Enough For Children With Mental Health Issues6:51 AM
The time for change in how we support a mental health diagnosis is now.
We're not doing enough for children
with mental health issues or their families.
A Mental Illness Diagnosis—
For The Whole Family
Saying—and sitting with—the words my child has a mental illness is life-altering. Our country has recently taken huge strides forward in the discussion around mental health, resulting in both raised awareness and a lowered stigma. But we still have some work to do. On VProud, there's a stick-to-your-ribs good conversation about this very topic: what else can we be doing to support our children who have a mental illness diagnosis? Heather Petri wrote a compelling response piece to the video about her personal experience with her son's mental health diagnosis and the support he received, as well as the support he still needs. Heather explains the need for funding, education, and forward-thinking planning. What struck us most is the reminder that when a child is diagnosed with a mental illness, it affects the whole family. Read Heather's words to get a glimpse of one mom's story of how she became a fierce advocate for children with mental health issues and to see what we can do to advocate by her side. We're all bettered when we take care of each other and each other's children.
—The VProud Team
My Child Has A Mental Illness
By Heather Petri for VProud
Imagine you have a child who experiences such anxiety and mood instability at school that he begins cutting himself during indoor recess. Imagine you have a child whose emotions are so low and teachers so concerned, they bring him to a safe room for a ‘break’. Imagine your child so deep in the darkness that while in this safe room, he takes his long sleeved shirt off and attempts to strangle himself with it.
Imagine your child is coming to the end of a seven-week stay in partial hospitalization for self harm and depression. Imagine having a meeting with school officials about his reintegration and they recommend your child tell his peers he was on ‘vacation’ for those seven weeks.
Imagine the fear you’d have as a parent, sending your child back into the four walls that triggered an emotional and downward spiral? Imagine how you’d feel after your child’s first day back at school when a teacher emails you and writes, “Could you tell your child to no longer talk about his mental health stay at the hospital? It’s really disrupting the classroom and my teaching time and the kids have a lot of questions.”
Imagine finding out that upon your child’s return to school, the principal was trying to orchestrate moving your child to another school for the last five weeks of the year, behind your back, because your child is a liability based on his previous tendency for self harming.
I don’t have to. This was my child. My experience. And these are just a few examples.
Let me say this. We had many, many school professionals in our corner, many, many teachers supporting and standing up for what was best for my child. And they were able to advocate and ensure my child received the best care possible, with the limited resources they had, with the mindset that he deserved more. And I am so thankful for them and all they did. They made the difference.
But those few other experiences we had that were negative are indicative of a much larger problem across this entire country. I believe if our education professionals were adequately provided with the knowledge and resources they need, the likelihood of those negative experiences would be severely decreased.
Mental illness is an invisible illness. Mental illness is the one that’s whispered about in dark corners and behind closed doors. It’s one that people are afraid of. It is one that is more often stigmatized than not. It is one that schools are less prepared to work with. There are many programs in our district for children with special needs like learning disorders, autism, and physical challenges. But mental illness tends to be this label that leaves kids floating in spaces not really meant for them.
My son will be entering his second year of middle school and there is no special education program in the district for children with mental illness diagnoses, with the exception of a separate school that is often reserved for children with severe behavioral challenges and disorders. Because of this, he has been placed in the autism program at his middle school. Except this: he isn’t autistic. However, this program provides the next closest level of support he needs, even if it’s not really the support he could use, and so this is where he is placed.
He falls through the cracks. Especially when his mood and emotions are stabilized and he is doing well. Which makes supporting him another challenge altogether. He consistently needs support, it’s just that sometimes the exact type of need changes throughout the school year.
Some support is better than no support, right? But imagine the thriving that could happen if the needed support was actually the best support for his needs?
Imagine you break your leg below the knee and you go to urgent care and the doctor adheres a two by four board to your leg with duct tape because they don't have the materials to make a proper cast. I mean, it’s better than nothing, but it’s not the best that can be done or the most proper and effective way to support your injury, is it?
Supporting the children in our schools who are living with mental illness is kind of like this.
So no, we are not doing enough to help these children.
Where do we start? I’m not sure, but I do know this. We must further equip our education professionals with more knowledge about mental illness. And I don’t mean they should all become trained counselors, but rather provide them enough education on the topic so they feel they can adequately support and advocate for their students. Provide them with enough education on the topic so they can instead use my child’s story as a teachable moment for the class rather than trying to be secretive about it or feel his sharing is disruptive.
And secondly, we must look for ways to better support these children in our schools, rather than ignoring their needs or placing them in programs that don’t adequately meet them.
The alarming facts from CDC and NAMI
about children with mental health issues are:
• Nearly 5 million children currently live with mental illness. That is 1 in 5, or 20% of our children either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder.
• A recent study reported a 24% increase in inpatient mental health and substance abuse admissions among children during 2007–2010.
• Suicide, which can result from the interaction of mental disorders and other factors, was the second leading cause of death among children aged 12–17 years in 2010.
• Half of all lifetime cases of mental disorders begin by age 14.
• Approximately 50% of students age 14 and older who are living with a mental illness drop out of high school. This is the highest dropout rate of any disability group.
This is not going away. And the longer we ignore it and whisper about it in dark corners and behind closed doors, the more pervasive the need will become and the more desperate our children will be.
The time for action is now.
About the author: Heather Petri is a mother, a mental health advocate, a master cupcake eater, a novice power lifter, and a seeker of strength and spreader of compassion who is learning to live life fearlessly over forty. You can learn more about Heather on her blog Life Is A Disco Ball where it’s all about life, laughter, love and shiny objects and join her honest conversations on VProud.
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