When my son was 16 years old, he threatened to blow up his school. He spent a few days in a mental health hospital, then was sent back to me. Still broken. Still confused. And still needing help. We, as his parents, had been helping him battle his demons for years. And although he is now 21, we continue to do so. But sometimes, I feel as if we are alone in this fight.
Mental health is a complex and controversial topic. But I know one thing for sure: Our society can and must do better in addressing it. I am not a mental health professional. Nor, unfortunately, do I have the solution.
I am mother whose son was hurting. A mother heartbroken to see him in pain. A mother who desperately looked for help only to hit brick wall after brick wall. And while all of this was going on, my husband and I were trying to provide a stable, normal home for our other children.
Our son is an adult now, working and doing pretty well. But it has been a long road to get here. When I was writing this, several well-meaning people asked whether I might write it anonymously instead of attaching my name to it. But my son and I talked about it extensively and decided that I could and should use my name. We want to help remove the stigma that accompanies mental illness.
My son had always been different. Since elementary school, he had struggled to fit in. He is sometimes obsessed with things, has a hard time relating to his peers, and doesn’t easily read body language and other social cues. In high school, he loved football and tried playing. However, he wasn’t very athletic and never felt he belonged. In his classes, he was teased and called names. He didn’t like going to school and tried to relate to others through the computer game Minecraft.
It was always challenging to get him motivated in school. He exhibited manic behavior such as not sleeping for days at a time and depressive behavior, such as when he wouldn’t leave his bed. I tried various community resources and a family therapist to help with this and to address his angry—sometimes destructive—outbursts. Nothing seemed to help much.
As his mom, I felt hopeless because no matter how hard I was trying, it felt like I was failing him. I would cry every night wondering how I could make it through this, what I did wrong, and why I couldn’t find the right help for him. I was exhausted.
We must encourage mental health awareness and change.
It is estimated that 70 percent of students who need mental health treatment do not receive it.
Many are embarrassed or ashamed to seek help when they are hurting. Schools simply do not have the resources to address the unique needs of every child. Parents do not see the signs. Plus, when families do seek help, it is difficult to find a therapist or a program that is affordable and the right fit.
Most insurance agencies complicate matters by limiting the number of therapy sessions. They refuse to pay for mental health hospitals after a predetermined, short amount of time—regardless of how the patient is. My son was deemed fit to return home, only to be admitted to another facility two days later because he still threatened to harm himself. The cost of long-term mental health facilities—often over $100 per day—is not covered by many insurance plans.
If a child has cancer, she usually can get the help she needs. If he has mental illness, resources are fewer.
Our system is broken.
We punish the behavior rather than attempting to discover the reason behind the behavior.
School professionals, parents and our criminal justice system punish children who exhibit disturbing behavior. The child is seen as a problem rather than someone who is hurting and needs help.
In my son’s case, during his freshman year of high school, he was asked to be a part of a group project where each student added on to a story. During my son’s turn, the material that he shared with the class was very violent and rather disturbing. However, he was not referred for counseling. I was not consulted about any concerns. Instead, he was required to go to Saturday detention.
Parents’ and students’ mental health concerns are ignored and minimized.
There have been many cases where after a tragedy, it has come to light that the school was warned about a possible attack. School professionals have the impossible job of teaching students in normal situations. I realize that they do not have the time, resources, and ability to recognize and to investigate every alleged complaint.
But I worry that some schools are more concerned with their reputations than listening to concerns. I reached out to the high school counselor to let him know about several bullying instances involving our son. When I mentioned the word “bullied,” the counselor became defensive. He stopped hearing me. He interrupted me, and said “No, our school has an anti-bullying policy.”
When a parent or a student reaches out with concerns of bullying, drug use, or discrimination, and their experience is ignored or minimized, they will stop reaching out to the school for help. And if a bullied child retaliates against his tormentor(s), that child often is punished.
It is a no-win situation.
There is a lack of follow-up.
When my son threatened to blow up the school, the threat was reported on the hotline. I had no idea about it, but when my son came home from school that day, I noticed he was acting erratic. I was fearful he would harm himself or someone else. So, I called 911 and had an ambulance take him to a mental health hospital.
The next day, a school security officer called me to tell me about my son’s threat. I informed them that we had him admitted to a mental health hospital, based on our own observations.
However, after a very brief stay at the hospital, my son was discharged. He went back to school without any follow-up by the school to ensure that he was not a threat. The mental health hospital he was released from did not follow up, either, to make sure he was receiving the required counseling.
As his parents, we have worked tirelessly to navigate the system and try to find diagnoses and help for our son. Even though he is an adult, off medications, living elsewhere with a relative and seems to be doing well, we will never stop worrying about him. At times, he continues to exhibit poor decision making and coping skills. There is a chance he will not be capable of living on his own.
We simply take things one day at a time.
What can you do?
If you are a parent, please be vigilant about noticing the signs of a mental health issue. Many times, parents think a child has become angry and withdrawn simply due to puberty. Sometimes, that’s true. Other times, these are classic signs of depression. If you do notice warning signs, reach out for help.
NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, offers a confidential 24-hour crisis hotline, resources, and help in locating support groups and therapy in your area. My husband and I attended a course through NAMI, geared towards the loved ones of a mentally ill person. This class taught us coping techniques, and allowed us to talk to others who understood.
Most importantly, don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to seek help. If a certain therapist, school, mental health facility, organization, or situation is not meeting your child’s needs, keep trying until you find the right kind of help for your child. We tried three different schools, and many counselors/community organizations before we found a solid combination for our son.
Remember you are the strongest advocate for your child!
Be sure to reach out for counseling for yourself and other children. Make the time to care for yourself and remember to give yourself grace.
Want to do more? Find an organization in your area and help them to encourage change in how our government and society address mental health. We can work together toward better insurance coverage, school resources, education, and advocacy to raise healthy kids.