Recently I attended the St. Thomas PCMH Chapter Parent Support Group meeting. These meetings are held on the 2nd Tuesday of every month beginning at 6 pm at OECYC on the corner of South Edgeware & Burwell Roads in St. Thomas. I actually made it on time this month.The first time I attended I thought it started at 7:30 pm, so I went sauntering in an hour and a half late, and couldn’t understand why everyone kept looking at the clock. Ooopsie. Did I mention I have trouble remembering things? (This is when my friend, Tonia, feels compelled to say “It’s a good thing you’re pretty”. Everyone needs good friends like her.)
There were three of us in attendance, four after a new comer joined us late. Those are pretty weak numbers and given that there’s an 18 month wait list for a child to see a youth counselor at OECYC, our local agency, I know there are a few more parents out there who could benefit from the support that PCMH offers. It’s empowering to know you’re not alone, that someone else understands your struggles. If you’re in the area, please come out next Tuesday and join us. I promise everyone is very kind and understanding, even when you’re really, really late.
At these meetings we share the triumphs and tragedies we experience raising our kids. We offer advice to one another on how to navigate the mental health system. We share information on what doctors are most helpful, which clinics offer the best diagnostic services, who are our favourite and least favourite social workers. We laugh at the things our children say and do that we can’t share with other parents because they don’t always see the humour in it. And we cry, and we cry together because no one else really gets how hard it is to watch your children, your babies, struggle so hard with life.
At this particular meeting two of the moms shared stories that I shocked me. The first mother, Penny, shared an experience related to her by her daughter’s social worker. Penny’s daughter has struggled with “being different” her entire life and at 17 has finally been diagnosed with OCD. She is currently attending a very positive therapy group and Penny feels good about the progress her daughter is making.
This young woman attends her local high school and has had some difficulty there socially with her peers and, sometimes, with the staff. Penny describes her daughters as very intelligent, artistic and as a creative thinker so she doesn’t fit into the mold of high school. The family spoke with the social worker who offered to go in and do a mental health awareness presentation to the teaching staff at the high school. This is where the story gets interesting.
During her presentation to the school faculty the social worker asked the teachers to come up with other terms to describe mental illness. They started out by using terms like “crazy”, “insane” and quickly descended to using terms like “nuts”, “off-their rocker”, “bonkers”, “dingy”, “screwy”, “psycho”, “freaky”…the list went on. The teachers were chuckling at their own witty banter when the social worker posed this question, “What would you call a child who has diabetes?” After all, mental illness is a physical ailment. According to the social worker, the teachers stopped joking and looked appropriately chastised.
It would seem the stigma of mental illness was alive, well and potentially breeding at that school. I understand the faculty have been much more understanding and patient with Penny’s daughter since the social worker’s visit. Kudos to the social worker who gave the lesson and cheers to the teachers who put the lesson in practice.
Abbie, the second mother, told of an incident that happened about four years ago. Her daughter, who is diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, had run away from home. She was only fourteen at the time. Abbie and her husband had contacted the police and, despite their agonizing worry for their daughter’s safety, continued to go through the motions of daily life. They had made a point of keeping their daughter’s illness a very private matter and few people in their life knew what was going on in the family home.
After three days, seventy-two hours gut-wrenching hours for Abbie and her family, the police released the information about the missing 14 year old to the press with the hope that the public would help find her and bring her safely home. Abbie’s home was immediately bombarded by reporters. She and her husband virtually barricaded themselves in their home while they debated whether or not to speak with the press. After much deliberation they decided to break their silence and open up about their battle for their child’s mental health.
Abbie chose to speak with a reporter from the London Free Press who was thrilled to get the exclusive interview. He promised to let Abbie know when the newspaper would run the story. Of course, that didn’t happen. The next day The London Free Press featured a large picture of Abbie’s daughter on the front page with the accompanying story of the family’s difficulties getting their daughter the help she needed and a plea for help to bring her home.
When Abbie arrived at work that morning for a meeting everyone was surprised to see her. Abbie said she didn’t realize how many people in our town (we live near London, but not in London) read the Free Press. Many people expressed the belief that she should go home, “given the circumstances”. Abbie wasn’t sure what to think. Were they concerned that her daughter was missing or were they uncomfortable having Abbie around because now they knew there was “mental illness” in her family? Was this compassion everyone was displaying or was she experiencing the stigma that mental health often evokes? The stigma she and her family had long tried to avoid by keeping their pain inside their four walls.
Later that same day, after finishing work, Abbie went to the bank. She’d been banking at the same place for years, ever since moving to our town, but she didn’t receive the warm welcome she was accustomed to. Instead, when she came to the front of the line and it was her turn to be served, the teller slammed the Closed sign down on the desk and told Abbie she was “a monster” for exploiting her child’s illness on the front page of the paper. No concern for the run-away, no sympathy for a heartbroken mother.
Abbie has since learned to ignore the unenlightened, those who would judge her actions without understanding the intricacies that are involved with living with mental illness. It’s challenging to face your peers when you are an adult and you are the one with a mental health diagnosis, trust me I know, but it is especially difficult when the one suffering is your child. You can’t make the pain go away. No amount of kisses or cartoon-themed bandages are going to fix what ails your little one. And no matter how hard you try to shield them, no matter how many times you visit the school and talk the unenlightened members of your family, the kids still feel the stigma.
The CBC recently posted a news article entitled How can we remove the stigma of mental health? This online article includes a poll asking, “What is the best way to remove the stigma of mental health?”. The options include:
1. Open discussion among family and friends.
2. Educating children about it as part of a school curriculum.
3. Creating support groups/clubs for youths.
4. Better public health ad campaigns.
5. Encouraging parents to speak more openly with their kids.
6. Doctors should work to dispel the mystery surrounding it.
They also offered “Other” and “I don’t know” options. I was looking for an “All of the above” option but there wasn’t one. I believe education is the key. Education involves all of the above choices. Education means liberation from judgement, freedom from shame and the end of stigma toward the mentally ill.
Help make a difference for mental health! Join Parents for Children’s Mental Health. Together we can make a difference.