Category Archives: Blog Posts

For a post created to show on the blog page tag with this category

Children, suicide and race

When my son was 7, he tried to jump to his death.  He was climbing our stairs to a landing twelve feet above a tiled floor.  When he got there, he put his foot over the bannister and tried to launch himself into the air.  I was right behind him, grabbed him and yanked him back to safety.  As I held him he struggled, sobbing, “Let me go, let me go.  I want to die.”

My heart was pounding, time slowed and everything I saw and heard became sharper and more vivid.  There is no single word to describe how I felt.  It was some combination of shock, horror, disbelief, anguish, inadequacy and panic.  My young son, who until then had been school phobic with nightmares and sadness, had veered sharply into new, horrifying territory. It was his first suicide attempt, but not his last.  He got older and more sophisticated in his methods and I felt that combination of shock and anguish each time.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate for children increased 64% from 2006 to 2016.  The rate for young children rose even higher. But the rise in suicides for African American children outpaces all other groups, rising 71% in the same time period.  Just like me, their mothers and fathers no doubt feel unprepared, in shock and disbelief.  We wonder how to make sense of this.

The Washington Post article, “He was happy. So far as I know” tells the story of 11 year old Rylan Hagan, an African American boy, who hanged himself last November. His mother found him and is devastated each hour and each day.

Rylan was loved, he had friends and did well in school and sports, even winning a trip to Disneyland that he never had a chance to take.  His mother is searching for clues she might have missed in the music he listened to, the video games he played and the movies he watched.  Once, when she asked him to do chores, he reacted emotionally, saying he wanted to kill himself. She wonders if she missed an important clue.

Parents look for answers everywhere after a suicide attempt and certainly after a completed suicide. Since we can’t look inside our children’s minds, we look at the things they surround themselves with, hoping to find leads.  We hope we will know it when, if, we see it.  A lot of the time, however, we don’t find what we are looking for.

Researchers don’t know why the rate of suicide for children has jumped and they can only guess why the rate of suicide for black children is even higher. They are alarmed by this spike and we should be too.  Researchers do suspect that racism plays a part as does an idea, a myth, that suicide is not a “black problem” and black children don’t kill themselves, says Rheeda L. Walker, a psychology professor at the University of Houston-Downtown. Myths like these mean that African American parents can be slower to get mental health care for their children.

Have you ever noticed that myths seem to congregate in groups? We believe groups of myths about food such as eating before swimming causes cramps and Twinkies don’t have an expiration date.  We believe clumps of things about animals including that toads cause warts or bats are blind.  People will still tell you that spicy food causes ulcers and carrots improve vision. No matter how often they are debunked, some myths seem to live on and on. If we believe one myth on a topic, we are more inclined to believe others.

We have a lot of myths about mental health, too, and they can encourage us to act or delay.  The one parents hear most often is that mental health issues stem from bad parenting.  Another myth is that mental health problems are a sign of weakness or only a phase.  Just wait, we are told, he will grow out of it. People will say with great authority, repeating common and false ideas, that therapy for kids is a waste of time and considering medication will lead to overmedicating. Just as people continue to believe that teaching sex education in schools leads to more sexual activity in teens, many also believe that talking about suicide will put that thought into a child’s head.  None of these myths are true.

Some of these myths are stronger and more persuasive for some groups of parents than others, but most of us buy into one or two.  No parent should be faulted for what they don’t know.  No one wants to believe that small people, children, can have big illnesses.  Unless you have a personal or family experience as a point of reference, myths guide us away from realizing what’s going on with our child. At least until it smacks us in the face.

Nikki Webber Allen created I Live For, a storytelling intiative to end stigma around depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders in teenagers and young adults of color.  When her 22 year old nephew took his life, Allen realized that remaining silent about her own depression had also robbed her of the opportunity to talk to him about his own mental health issues. Allen, an Emmy winning producer, is creating a documentary to tell the individual stories of people of color who have struggled with anxiety and depression.  She hopes it will help boost understanding and dispel myths.

When my son made his first suicide attempt, I looked for other parents like me.  They were very hard to find and in my search I was often met with disbelief that young children could be suicidal or depressed.  Even my son’s pediatrician and teachers were unhelpful, telling me I’d have a hard time finding other parents who were going through the same thing.  We need to find each other and tell our stories out loud. We all need to ask why suicide rates for children, especially African American children, are going up.  Parents are looking for answers. That’s what we do.

 

A Letter to Anyone Considering an Inpatient Stay

You are much stronger than you believe you are.

I used to see having a stay in a psych unit as a sign of weakness. To me, it meant you were no longer the kind of strong you thought you were. I guess in a way I was right. But when I say I was right, I mean that you aren’t the strong you once were: you are stronger. You’ve learned to accept that sometimes, you need to get away for a while, and take care of yourself. You’ve learned that accepting and receiving help for your symptoms isn’t selfish or some terrible thing. It means that you are taking necessary steps towards mental and emotional wellness. Take pride in that.

I just ended an 18 day stay at a psych unit. I pushed it off for so long, but the pain kept building up. The depression, anxiety, and unprocessed trauma constantly running through my mind were torturous. I was having nightmares. Night after endless night I’d wake up either in a panic, in tears, or both. That started leading to my insomnia. Not sleeping for days on end, terrified of what happens behind my eyelids. The depression and anxiety came crashing in, each day worse than the day before, due to the lack of sleep.

I felt out of control. My trauma had taught me that silence was my enemy. It taught me that I wasn’t worth much at all. Fortunately, I got to get a lot of my trauma out of my head, having been able to talk about my feelings every day. I was under constant monitoring, and although at times I hated it, this stay made me realize, even more than ever, that everyone deserves time to be human. That even those who put on a brave face for everyone else has to get the help they need.

Inpatient stays are scary. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. You have a lot of time to think. You have time to realize just how hard life has been lately. But you also get to talk through and process a lot of things you’ve been burying deep into yourself. Things you never thought you’d share, things you thought you’d take to the grave.

Not every unit is suitable for every kind of person. I personally loved the unit I was on (as much as you can love a psych unit), but not everyone there found it helpful. Regardless, you must try to trust the process. You must try to get the help you need, no matter who you work with. Advocate for yourself. Speak up for what you need, but also what your values are.

If you are currently struggling, I want to let you know that your feelings are valid. A lot of the time, we don’t hear that often enough. You have every right to be upset, mad, depressed, anxious, or tired. But I promise you, it can get better. You can find the light at the end of the tunnel of darkness you’ve been in for so long. It’s right in front of you. There will be obstacles. There will be barriers. But you are strong, brave, and resilient.

I believe in you, even if you are currently lacking the belief in yourself. Remember, an inpatient stay doesn’t equal weakness. It equals a strength that you never believed you had. And when you realize that, you have the power to accomplish your goals. I hope this letter has helped you. And I hope you realize the amazing things you are capable of.

 

Rachel is a young adult who hopes to someday become a peer mentor or a peer specialist. They are currently working on writing and publishing a book of poetry.

My grandfather, my son and the right thing

I was 9 years old when I noticed that my grandfather dropped my grandmother off for church services every Sunday but never went inside.  Oh, he went to church for weddings, funerals, fairs and Saturday bean suppers.  But he never once attended Sunday services.  My grandmother would say he didn’t like sitting in the pew or that she simply needed a ride.  I asked my mother about it, feeling a little anxious, trying to make it fit into my limited understanding.  “Your grandpa doesn’t believe in God,” she explained, “But he believes in Good.”

I sucked in my breath and my little-girl understanding shifted.  Until then, I had Good, God, having morals, doing good deeds and being a good person firmly super-glued together in my head.  You couldn’t have one without the other, right?  I began to understand the different shape of each thing and how they were not identical.

I saw in my grandfather, whom I adored, a warm, generous, very kind man who adhered to a strong code of conduct.  If you left a dime at his house, he returned it to you at the next visit. But he was agnostic, not religious. I noticed others who did the “right thing” every time, even when it was uncomfortable or a stretch for them, but they had beliefs about the world that startled me.  I gradually became comfortable with the idea that our inner guidance systems are unique and help us navigate the world in singular ways.

Many years later, this would help me understand and love my son during the hardest times.

My son was 7 when I realized that he saw and heard things that no one else did.  He was too old to label it magical thinking and his therapists and teachers were reluctant to call it psychosis.  What he saw and heard often scared him and that fear followed him all day, often even into the night, resulting in nightmares.  His fear, frustration and despair would overwhelm him and he would lash out or fly into a frenzy, hurtling objects and even hurting himself.  In those hours, he changed into someone else, shedding the things that gave him joy: his laughter, his creativity and his curiosity.

Sometimes the voices and visions told him to hurt his younger brother and I would hold him tight while he raged.  I would urge his smaller sibling to close himself in his bedroom, to be safe and out of sight. We did this again and again over the years, our family’s version of a safety drill.  His younger brother went from telling people that “I have a very, very good brother who does very, very bad things” to simply announcing that his brother was bad.  Very bad.  Once, when someone asked what his brother was like, he replied, “I have a bad brother and he is a very bad brother to me.” In his mind you couldn’t do such bad things and not be bad yourself.

It’s hard when you are in the midst of daily chaos to unstick the superglue that binds together your ideas about what children are like, especially your own children.  I thought children were naturally resilient, absorbing life around them, sometimes being silly.  That wasn’t my son’s life at all.  He was emotionally fragile, sometimes lost in his own world and unable to laugh. It was my job to untangle my assumptions and instead put in plain view the things I wanted others to see.   It was my job as a parent to paint that picture, showing the world outside my family that my child could be good and do bad things.  That my child had lots of moments where he was brilliant and vulnerable and caring.

He could be loving and smart, hold my hand, give great hugs and say funny things and still have moments and hours where he made me cry, made me angry and pretty scared for him.

There were no guidelines to understanding my son; I had to create my own.  I began to understand that while he did not always understand what was real, he could understand what was right. Even more, he cared about that. Often, after his rages and being lost in his phantasmic world, he would feel deep remorse.  (He was still unable to stop himself the next time though.)   His sense of what was right and wrong vied with the voices and destructive impulses.

When he was a little older, he announced he had made what he considered a better moral choice.  He began directing the raging and hurting only toward himself, sometimes viciously, sometimes persistently and away from his brother and me. His inner guidance system was trying to make peace between the storms in his mind and his sense of what was right.

We are all nuanced people with complicated beliefs.  It doesn’t get any better when you throw mental health issues into the mix.  On those parenting days when I came up for air, I would channel my mother.  I would talk about my son saying, “My son is not always sure what is real, but he loves knowing what is right.” Then I would add a story or two which showed the shape of our lives, hoping to unstick others’ ideas about good children and bad behaviors.

What is sick enough?

What is sick enough?  Is sick enough a meaningless number or stupid hospital band?  Is sick enough the size of your thighs? Or that dead look in your eyes?

Is sick enough really what we are trying to achieve? What even is “sick enough” besides some bullshit phrase our eating disorders engrave into us?

I can tell you one thing, I have never felt “sick enough.” Even when I was on my death bed I still didn’t feel sick enough. And why? Because sick enough isn’t real, there will always be another demand from the disorder, inpatient or not, weight loss or not, there will always be more.

Take a moment to think about the stigma around eating disorders.  What does a stereotypical eating disorder sufferer look like, both in society, with this idea of an underweight cis-gendered white woman even within the recovery community and with professionals who deem the severity of this mental illness through the severity of the physical side effects shown on someone’s body. If there is one thing I’ve learned through my various hospital admissions it is that how someone looks has very little to do with what’s going on within their body and mind. Someone may look healthy and can still be severely ill, and gender means absolutely nothing.

That some false measure of “sick enough” exists is engraved into our heads the moment the eating disorder comes in.  And even when we open ourselves up to treatment, many people fear reaching out to ask for help because they are concerned they won’t be taken seriously. The eating disorder and frankly, some treatment providers intentionally or not, preach this idea that in order to be sick enough you have to reach some sort of bullshit status. Whether that be inpatient, a diagnosis, or a weight range this idea of sick enough manifests in various ways. When in reality it doesn’t really exist and everyone is “sick enough” to deserve help.

To go a little further, I’m now going to swim into the pool of treatment centers, how do you get into treatment for your eating disorder? Through a mental but primarily physical exam, which is a whole different issue in itself. If you’re lucky you’re in, assuming providers decide that you are “sick enough”. But what happens when you have an eating disorder plus other mental health issues? How can you receive help for both? Unfortunately overlapping help is often not accessible, so people are treated for one thing or the other, but rarely both. I’ve been turned away from receiving treatment for my eating disorder due to my other mental health disorders and I’ve also been turned away from treatment for my other mental health disorders due to my eating disorder. There is always a major fear factor when treatment centers are faced with multiple issues within a patient, so these other issues are commonly ignored.

Something providers lack is the knowledge that these mental illnesses are completely intertwined. With an eating disorder there is a lot of anxiety and OCD and eating disorder behaviors can be extremely connected. Underneath the eating disorder there are surrounding issues. Eating disorders are often avoidance behaviors, meaning that there is an underlying issue, but when turned away from help for these underlying issues due to fear from providers; what’s left is a lack of coping tools.

The solution, while hard to achieve, is entirely possible.  It’s a more collaborative approach. Because these illnesses are very connected it is valuable to have treatment that is unified. In my opinion, the line between treatment for psychiatric disorders and eating disorders is much thicker than necessary since both disorders are mental disorders.

Emily is a young adult who uses art and social media to express emotion, educate and provide support and hope for peers struggling with eating disorders and mental health challenges.  Follow her on Instagram @ reconstructingemily

Residential programs, partnering and loud music

When my son was 16, I drove him two and a half hours to his new residential program.  Amazingly, we both stayed calm, chatting about inconsequential things and turning the music up when things got emotional and we needed to stop talking.  This was a moment I had staved off since he was eight, the first time someone suggested he go into a residential.  I’d thought of it, scowled at the thought, rejected it, marshalled arguments against it and yet, here we were.

His arrival was anticlimactic.  The staff grabbed his things and he went off to browse DVDs and video games he wished he had at home.  I was reassured, signed things and was given a list of ways to reach the program.  On the two and a half hour ride home, I alternately gave myself a lecture, sobbed and turned the music up.  (Yes, it’s a family coping mechanism.)

The first night was really hard.  I woke up a lot, half listening for my insomniac child to wake up and wander in the night, feeling an emptiness in his room down the hall.  Our dog, Bonny, who usually slept on the foot of his bed, meandered around not sure where she should sleep. We got through that night and the next and the next. We adjusted to having space where he used to be, a space that would be filled only when he was home some weekends.

Over the next couple of years, I made that two and a half hour drive a lot.  Some weekends I would drive out Saturday morning, take my son on day-long outings, return him to the program and then come home at night.  The next trip I would make a round trip on Friday so he could come home, then another round trip on Sunday to return him.  I listened to a lot of loud music in the car.

Sometimes I say that if my family were a game show, we would be Let’s Make a Deal.  This time, my son and I had made one of our deals – if he went to the program, I would be there on most weekends. It was a long drive, but he was part of our family. I called a lot during the week, calls to him, to his program therapist and often to his teacher.  When staff wanted to treat his eating issues as a behavior, I called, explained, begged, threatened and called up the ladder to resolve it.  When there were conflicts with others or medication issues or he had a favorite item stolen, I jumped in and advocated for him. I took him for his haircuts, to buy clothes and all the things a mom does.  I held on to my rightful place as his parent with an iron grip and didn’t let go.

It turns out this was one of the best things I ever did.

Residential programs in this state and others are changing, or trying to, so that they shift to make space for parents as partners.  Lots of times this is still aspirational instead of reality, but with each little change there is no going back.  The national initiative, Building Bridges for Youth, tells residential providers that children have better outcomes when their parents visit, stay in touch and are involved both in the short and long term.  They also have the research to back it up.  Children go into residential programs as family members and when they are there, they remain part of their family too.  Families have incredible knowledge and resources to offer and parents have enormous expertise to draw on.  Yet, sometimes parents are welcomed, sometimes ignored, sometimes disrespected.  Often, all three attitudes can be found in a single program.

By the time my son entered a residential program, I was pretty exhausted.  I had been fighting, advocating, collaborating and juggling for a very long time.  We both had mixed feelings about it, but had limited options.  He had been turned down by six day schools and eight residential programs.  He needed someplace to receive therapy and finish high school.  I needed someplace where they had had teens like him before and I could trust that they knew what they were doing.  I already knew that clinical and program expertise didn’t always come with a parent friendly attitude, but I figured I could change that.  My exhaustion might have initially looked like acquiescence or passivity but it was soon apparent that advocacy had taught me a few things

It also helped that my son would ask staff if they had checked in with me when there was a change.  Even better, he often told them that he had to check in with me himself before he made a major decision.  The two of us didn’t always agree, but we talked things through and figured out how to get what was needed.  Sometimes, we made a deal.  I frequently told him that advocacy was the family business.  He would say, “I guess I’d better learn it, then.”

Like many parts of the mental health system, residential programs are usually designed to operate in a way that works for the program.  Routines and schedules are the same for everyone.  Same for meals and activities.  Parents can see the program as unwilling to be flexible and programs often see parents as unwilling to change.  When an engaged pushy parent like me comes along, programs have to decide if they want to cheer or groan.

Being very involved was one of the best things I ever did, lengthy drives and all.  At first I was involved because, well, that was how I parented a son with mental health needs that mushroomed over the years.  I was also involved because it was part of the deal I made with him and keeping promises was important to both of us.  I came to realize that my regularly showing up, calls, chats with staff and meetings with therapists set the groundwork for troubleshooting when we needed it.  It blurred the lines between us so we were more of a team.  It created respect and sometimes, admiration among us.  It probably led to better outcomes, too.  Cue the loud music.