I recently had the opportunity to go to Washington DC to lobby for better children’s mental health services. I was there as the Massachusetts parent voice and to partner with child psychiatrists to make the case that continued support and funding for children’s mental health is crucial. It was truly an honor and an experience I will not soon forget. I learned many things but the most important was: we as parents have the power to enact change for our children.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) has an annual lobbying day. They bring together psychiatrists, medical students, advocates and parents to work in teams to lobby the congressional delegation from individual states. I had the privilege of working with two great psychiatrists, John Sargent, director of Tufts Medical Center’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry division and Anthony Jackson who works with the state mental health system and is in private practice. The AACAP gave us training and information which made me and parents from other states feel at ease as we visited the offices of our senators and congressman. Our team met with representatives from the offices of Senators John Kerry and Scott Brown as well as Congressmen John Olver, Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey. Since these staffers can meet with as many as 40 groups per week, it was important they remember us and our message.
Here is where the power of the parent voice comes in. My husband and I have three sons with various degrees of mental illness. When speaking with the legislative aides, I was able to tell them our personal story and show them a picture of our sons. The picture is one of the boys with great smiles in front of the trees during the ice storm in central Massachusetts last year. As I spoke of each boy, I would point to whom I was referring. Being a parent from PPAL without ties to a professional organization, I could then ask them if they have had any experience with mental illness in their lives. Most had been touched by this experience whether it was a family member, friend, college roommate or someone else. Once they would share, I could follow-up at the end of the meeting.
When I returned home I sent each person I met with a hand-written thank you note featuring a painting of the Boston Common and a picture of my boys. In the note, again because I am a parent, I could thank them for sharing their story. I believe this helped them remember us.
Another way that we as parents have the power to enact change is through collaboration with others. Until I went to Washington, I did not understand the value of working with psychiatrists and therapists on the imperative changes needed from our insurance companies. I have spent the past five years fighting insurance companies to get the services our family so desperately needed. I have learned billing and diagnostic codes, appeals processes and have fought for out of network approval for the ever dwindling pool of providers left in Massachusetts. While the psychiatrists with me cited the sobering statistic that 50% of child psychiatrists are planning to leave Massachusetts in the next five years, I was able to talk about how this impacted my family.
I learned that we can work together to create change. Whenever you are asked to contact your elected official regarding a vote or creation of a bill, do so. The offices keep track of every phone call, email and letter regarding an issue. Your voice DOES count. Remember, we are stronger together and we could ever be by ourselves.
Finally, change takes time. Do not be discouraged. Just like with our children, we cannot make change overnight. Our efforts will all be worth it because of our children.