I can still clearly remember the day that I met him. He was playing in the pretend kitchen with his mother. Children swirled around him laughing, but he did not look up. Something in the way that his mother gently knelt by him telegraphed her protective instincts. I recognized him right away. He was one of “my kids”.
“My kids” are amazing. “My kids” are brilliant, creative and talented. “My kids” have special needs and I saw all of those qualities in the boy playing in the kitchen with his mother. I was so drawn to this child that I did something that I had never done before. I asked the preschool teacher to refer me to his mother so that I could work with him.
I had to make a deal with the teacher in order to be introduced. She asked me to take on a job for her that I did not want to do and in return, she would strongly suggest that his mother would hire me. The deal was worth it. I started working with the boy the next fall.
That was 14 years ago. The boy is grown now, a high school senior who towers over me. The gift that I received from working with him was a glimpse into the life of someone who has anxiety. Someone who is prone to depression. Someone who needs to be constantly vigilant or when he slips into his sadness he may not be able to crawl back out. The gift of hope, perseverance and strength in the face of adversity.
Since the day that I met that boy, I have met so many more children who struggle with mental illness. More and more of my clients show aspects of anxiety and depression. More and more of our community is also showing signs of stress, battles with depression and anxiety. Our local high school has had at least 12 students commit suicide over the past decade. People have many theories about why there seems to be a rise in depression and anxiety in children and teens. One theory is that The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders are related. Whatever the reason, we are experiencing an increase in mental illness affecting our youth.
We live a community rich with resources and yet we do not have enough mental health services to serve our youth. Our local children’s hospital is world-renowned and yet they farm out teens who need hospitalization for psychiatric treatment to hospitals in another county. Free and anonymous services for children and adolescents are hard to find. My young friend drives an hour to go to an adolescent bipolar support group.
The lack of resources for adolescent mental health in a region that is home to some of the best research and medical services baffles me. I wonder if this lack of services is directly related to the stigma that still hangs over people with mental disorders. At one school meeting about the last student who had taken their life, the word suicide was never mentioned. It was referred to as “the recent event”. At that meeting, my young friend met a woman who was worried about her daughter. Her daughter had not left her room for a month. The mother was embarrassed and reluctant to tell her doctor about her daughter; perhaps it would affect how people looked at her daughter, her family.
As long as a stigma is perceived people will suffer in the shadows. As long as there is a stigma people will be silent about mental health. Do we need to wait until every family knows someone affected by mental illness before we take action? Do we need to wait until we lose more of our brilliant young people?
If you, or someone you know, struggles with mental health, get help, offer help, talk about the challenge out loud. We need to recognize mental health as just that: another area of our health. We should treat mental illness with the same compassion and care that we treat any other chronic condition. There is no stigma in being ill.
Not only should there be no stigma, there is plenty of hope for our youth. There is so much that can be done to help. My young friend still has his struggles, but his daily life is rich. With the proper support and care, he can manage his mental health, much the same way as anyone with a chronic illness. There is hope as long as we don’t hide.
Resources and Information on Childhood and Adolescent Mental Health:
Happiness, Love, and Light; One woman’s perspective on depression and anxiety.