Hope is not a plan.
While it absolutely has a place in our lives, hope itself is not a plan for treatment or recovery. Mental illness is real and it requires treatment. And that treatment is expensive and difficult to obtain. Presently in Minnesota, there are about 50 Child Psychiatrists. That's it. In my experience, it is not uncommon to wait 3 months for an appointment. Yes, there are emergency appointments--but you have to know to ask for them and the fact that they exist is not common knowledge.
In the spring of 2006, my Younger Kid experienced the onset of a serious mood disorder. I knew the exact day that something was different. I can pinpoint the hour. It was just after lunch on April 19, 2006. He was playing a game of football, one of the teachers became concerned about the level of intensity in the game and put his hand on my son and my son took the teacher to the ground and injured him.
I have written about the hospitalization that followed--my first attempt to find treatment for my Younger Kid. As my son's mother, I knew that something was different. I knew he was going through something new. I knew it was serious, dangerous and absolutely real. While seeking treatment, we ran into one roadblock after another. There is not a clear treatment plan. If it were a broken bone or a serious physical injury, doctors know what to do with that. They know exactly how to heal that. But, in the case of mental illness, every brain is different. It takes several tries to find the right medication.
On top of that, we faced difficulty from the community. My husband and I knew we would need support beyond our home if we were going to see our son successfully reach 18. We contacted our county and asked to open a children's mental health case. We worked with the school to create a behavior support plan for our son. We utilized the county's crisis response line and we called the police when we needed to. Sadly, there were many times when the community response to our call for help was less than helpful. I remember calling the crisis number and being asked, "What do you want us to do? You are the parent." Yes. I am the parent of a child raging against me, violently attacking me and the rest of my family! That is a crisis. I remember one police officer walking away from me shaking his head and saying, "I sure hope you figure out what you're going to do with this kid."
But Sir, hope is not a plan. We needed help.
April 19, 2006 is the day my son started displaying symptoms of a serious mental illness. During the next 14 months, he was hospitalized 5 times. He stayed in the hospital for 20-30 days each time. He was arrested twice. He spent two 72 hour stretches in the custody of police. He spent 60 days in a group home. I don't know how many times we called the police for assistance and I don't know how many times we went to court. During those months our family was held hostage by mental illness. On May 23, 2007, after driving away while my kid chased us down the road, I called my son's doctor--Dr. Joel Oberstar--and left a desperate and tearful message. "I can't live with Younger Kid for one more day. He needs treatment. Please help us." When he called back, Dr. Oberstar said, "Bring him to the hospital. I'm going to take care of this."
Dr. Oberstar got Younger Kid into treatment. He is one of a handful of professionals who committed to our son and helped our family. Younger Kid spent almost two years in residential treatment and a total of 43 months in out of home placements before his 18th birthday. Without that help, I'm afraid to think about what might have happened.
"Don't all kids do that?"
Sometimes the community misunderstands mental illness. A parent can describe some crisis that's taken place in their home and a well meaning friend or relative says something like, "Don't all kids do that?"
And it's true. Raising kids is not easy. But it's the intensity and the duration of the behaviors that sets a kid with mental illness apart. All kids do try to separate themselves from their parents. But not all kids try to jump out of the car on the highway. All kids do feel sad and even experience depression after breaking up with their first love. But not all kids take 400 Tylenol. All kids are mouthy and disrespectful sometimes. But not all kids call their mother "stupid fucking bitch" 50 times a day for months and months. All kids have difficulty and act outrageously sometimes to get their parent's attention. But not all kids light things on fire or throw dishes through patio doors or break their dad's fingers. Our family's challenge was not the typical behavior response, but the intensity and duration of that response.
My Younger Kid lives an almost "normal" life today because of the treatment and support he received from the professionals who committed to him. When I read stories like the one at the beginning of this post, I say a prayer of thanks for my son's doctor, his social worker, his therapist and the residential treatment staff. They saved Younger Kid's life. Who knows how many other lives they may have saved.
It's an investment.
Many times over the years, while navigating the mental health system of care, I have begged and insisted "please invest in my son now." He is worth the investment. He is a good person with a good heart. He has an illness. He didn't choose it. It's not his fault. He can't simply make a better choice without the help of medication and therapy. Structure and a firm hand is not going to fix it. Neither is a sticker chart. Kids who live with mental illness need treatment. Not ten days of treatment. But, as much as it takes. And whatever it costs, I can assure you that it's less than a life in prison.
"A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats it's weakest members."
In the midst of government shutdown, budget cuts, no new taxes and financial crisis, I cannot think of something more important than mental health care. Yet, I fear that decision makers may not know the value of this type of care. If you have a story like mine, call your legislator and share it. Let the policy makers know how important mental health care is to our society.