This week is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week and there are events all over Massachusetts. Some of them are splashy — such as dinners and photo exhibits — but most are low key events organized by parents and those who want to do something about the stigma still attached to mental health disorders. The governor and many mayors issue proclamations, posters and flyers are put up in communities and everyone is urged to wear a green ribbon. I’m wearing one right now; are you?
What I love most about children’s mental health week is that it still belongs to the families who started it. In November 1995, I went to the annual conference of the national Federation of Families and heard a presentation by a passionate, funny and articulate group of families from Missouri. They had come together and decided that the most important thing they could do for their kids was try and reduce stigma. “This isn’t a casserole illness,” one said. “No one comes to your house with lasagna or a casserole when your child goes into a psychiatric hospital. Instead, they either don’t know what to say, or worse, act as if this is somehow the parent’s fault.” So they started a campaign to raise awareness, reduce stigma and celebrate their children. It’s still going strong in Missouri to this day.
After the conference I brought all their materials and suggestions back to Massachusetts. In May 1996, two friends, Nancy Collier and Marian Butler, and I launched Children’s Mental Health Week in our state. We created posters, a tool kit and took a stab at writing public service announcements. Our coworkers and friends gave us small donations to help with printing, mailing and glueing ribbons together. We met each other in McDonald’s parking lots and handed off materials. We were determined it was going to be a success. Parents loved it and put up posters in libraries, supermarkets and schools. And proudly wore their ribbons.
We got technical advice from the family organization in Missouri along the way. (I’ll never forget the phone message from one staff person, after we had had a few days of telephone tag. He was trying to connect to get some information to me and kept saying, “I want to git with you so I’ll keep tryin’. I’m gonna git with you all in Massachusetts.”) They were so pleased to see families in other states mirror their efforts.
Next year will be the 15th year we have had Children’s Mental Health Week in Massachusetts. Children’s mental health issues are more often in the news (both positive and negative coverage) and our awareness has increased. Parents still emphasize the impact that a child’s mental health needs have on everyone in the family and sometimes it’s heard. We’ve made some progress but there’s still a lot of ground to cover.
Guess I’ll keep wearing that green ribbon!