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Breach of trust, breach of privacy

“I was walking down the aisle of the grocery store,” Greg said, “and in the next aisle I heard my son’s teacher telling someone the details of his abuse.”  I was driving Greg, a dad of three, to a local radio station where we were going to be on a talk show about children’s mental health.  We had only met over the phone and quickly told each other the brief version of our lives:  how many kids we had and what kind of mental health issues we grappled with.  The conversation quickly turned to our war stories, the stories of hardship and crisis, partly to prep for the interview.  That’s when Greg told me about overhearing the teacher.

Greg was a single father of two boys and a girl, all of whom had different diagnoses.  His second son, his middle child, had the most on his plate.  He’d had several psychiatric hospitalizations, rotated through several medications and bounced around among therapists.  Right now, Greg was trying to get his school system to see that the child they had enrolled a couple of years ago was a far different child with more serious needs.  He had debated with himself, then told the school the details of his son’s story, hoping it would create an “aha” moment.  I’m sure it did, but it also led to a privacy breach.

Greg and his wife had divorced when the children were small and they had gone to live with their mom and her new boyfriend.  He saw them irregularly.  Greg moved in and out of the state, had several jobs where he tried out a few things.  Some were successful, some weren’t.  Then one day he got a call saying there had been charges of physical and sexual abuse against his ex-wife’s boyfriend and could the children come live with him?  He immediately agreed, somehow thinking that his children would be the same as when they were preschoolers, just older versions of the children he had lived with every day.

They weren’t.  Each of them had been through a lot and expressed it differently.  His oldest son kept saying everything was fine but had nightmares at night.  His youngest, his daughter, was clingy and didn’t want to let him out of her sight.  His middle child had received the brunt of the abuse and alternated between hurting himself and exploding with pain and anger.  Greg, bless his heart, had to learn three different styles of parenting in very short order.

The day he heard the teacher telling someone the graphic details of his son’s abuse, the child was with him and heard it too.  The boy began sobbing and curling in on himself.  Greg told him to wait with the grocery cart and stalked over to the next aisle where he had a few choice words to say.  He felt a little better but he couldn’t unhear it and neither could his son.  Neither could the person who was told the story.

Parents tell me over and over again that they simply don’t trust school staff with their child’s mental health information or history.  They worry – without knowing Greg or his son – that something similar will happen and they fear it will hurt or infuriate them.  There are exceptions to this – parents report that they trust special education teachers and school nurses to a great degree.  Sometimes there are individual teachers who “get it” or have raised a challenging child of their own.  These are the people who translate the symptoms, like Greg’s son’s meltdowns, into working diagnoses and unmet needs.   But they seem to be a small group.

Things happen to children through no fault of their own, resulting in trauma and difficult behaviors.  Sometimes things happen within children, too, that are beyond their control, such as overwhelming moods or crushing anxiety or ping-ponging thoughts. Until they learn tools and strategies, behavior is often their only way to let others know how they are feeling and what their needs are.   In savvy schools, teachers, guidance counselors and aides can be “first identifiers” and spot the things that should concern us and raise the red flag.  In schools like the one Greg’s son attended, that seldom happens.

Parents worry a lot about privacy.  Information about us is collected by everyone, or so it seems, and your children’s information is gathered without their consent. (Often without a parent’s consent either.)  Some information doesn’t intrude into our lives very much so we shrug it off.  For instance, I really don’t care if my transponder tells EZPass how many times I’ve crossed a toll bridge or driven a certain highway. But other information is much more sensitive and can shape how people see us.  Personal mental health information still carries a powerful amount of stigma.

Some mental health advocates say that we should all tell our tales of mental health and mental illness openly. It is, they argue, the only way we will reduce stigma and raise awareness.  Every time I hear that, I think of Greg.  He thought by telling the school about his son’s trauma that he would create compassion.  He expected that the team working with his son would respect his privacy.  The day he heard the teacher talking in the next aisle and watched his son sobbing, he changed.  He learned to tell just enough but not everything.  He learned that sometimes the risk of sharing his story can be too great.  He learned that while our stories can create powerful change, emotional safety matters too.