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A mission to make “normal” memories happen

May 15th, 2011

Today’s post is by our guest blogger, Meri Viano. **** As I look around and see all the parents in my community raising their kids, I often wonder what it is like to experience “normal” school activities. As I raise kids with emotional needs, I try to teach my kids that there is no such thing as “normal.” But let’s be real here:  there are many times during the school year that we bump into a situation where we have to decide what kinds of “typical” experiences we need to make happen and which ones to let go of.

I am not the type of person that usually gets caught up in this, but  sometimes the differences between what my children experience in a therapeutic school and what other children experience in public school has to be thought through.  The other day, my son and I had a conversation and of course it turned into a mission.  My kids attend “private” schools (as they call them) and  I am fortunate to have found two great schools with parent support.

Mission 1:  My oldest son asked the other day, “Mommy can I get a class ring?”  I immediately said sure, then thought quickly, “Let’s GOOGLE it,” since it’s not something provided by his school.  I was amazed to find a site dedicated to class rings and even more surprised that you can engrave the name of your own town on it.  My son deserves the same special opportunities as other kids but I’m the one who has to make sure it will happen. I know this is important to him and is one thing that he will remember.

Mission 2:  My younger son has been attending a “private” school for 2 years.   He came home his first year and told me he was having school pictures taken. I remember saying, “Really?  That is great!” The director of his school, an amazing woman, takes photos of all the students in the school. If you have money or not you get a picture! However, my other son reminded me recently,  “I haven’t had my class picture taken for 3 years”  True–and how did I miss that? With all the other stuff, it just happened. Mission number 2 has been accomplished because the school director made this happen.  While demands such as MCAS had crowded it out, knowing it was important to the students put it back on the “to do” list.

Mission 3: I love volunteering in the school. To go on field trips, to make a project, to do a fundraiser with the students in the school – I love it!! I remember when I joined the PTA in my town.  It was an amazing opportunity to have parent voice front and center. But in “private” schools you are lucky if you even come across parents. Either no one is allowed to volunteer because of privacy issues, or you are the only parent asking because so many children are in care and custody of the state. When my kids were in public school, I made gingerbread houses,  was there for teacher appreciation day, and also field day! While I hated being the parent whose child needed a one-on-one, I loved being there.

At therapeutic schools, it is a new “concept” to have parents involved. Families, parents, siblings, grandparents are not often not visible there or attend activities.  In public school, you are invited to many things, and they know that parent involvement is necessary to have “active” supports for their students. In “private” schools it is “different” to ask parents to be involved.   Both of my boy’s schools are trying very hard to include parents.

Family involvement is really not anything new for schools to accept. However, it is hard for some schools to understand that even with obstacles and challenges, we want involvement. We just need to be asked and told that we are wanted.

As I thought about the differences in public and “private” schools, other milestones came into my mind:  prom, high school graduation and then the bragging and boasting about where your child will be going to college.  My kids will grow and understand that it may be a bit different, but it will be unique, special and amazing. 

I am extremely lucky to have two kids that will teach me how to advocate for “normal” childhood memories. Hopefully, they will have many more of them and know that they are worth just as much as any kid that goes to public school.

The picture is of a school zone sign from the Ottawa County Museum in Kansas.  It was taken by Chris Murphy.

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Why we need awareness week

May 1st, 2011

In the mid 1990s, I went to a conference held by the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental  Health and heard for the first time about children’s mental health awareness week.  A group of parents from Missouri had come together and decided that the best thing they could do for their children was to work on stigma.  They thought that stigma was as large a barrier for parents whose children had mental health challenges as access or lack of effective treatments.  It probably still is.

One of the reasons I was so drawn to this new campaign called children’s mental health awareness week was that my son and I had had our own jarring experience with stigma.  When Matthew was 7, he had his first hospitalization.  It was preceded by months of being withdrawn, often unable to leave the house and ultimately an attempt at suicide.  When he came home, he went around the neighborhood to his friends’ houses and announced, “I was in the psychiatric hospital but now I’m better so I came home.”  Most parents responded, “That’s nice, Matthew.”

One mother, however, immediately called me.  She said she no longer wanted my son to play with her daughter (who had been one of his close friends) and further, she didn’t even want him to come onto her property.  I was stunned, hurt and bewildered.  I was sure this wouldn’t have happened if he had been hospitalized for almost anything else.

Current studies show that human brains prefer data that support what we already believe. A 2007 study by researchers from Indiana University, University of Virginia and Columbia University shows that Americans believe that children with depression are likely to be violent.  In the same study, 82% felt that doctors were overmedicating children and 56% felt medication prevented families from working out their problems.  An additional 45% believed that rejection at school is a likely consequence of getting treatment.

Parents are experts at determining risk-benefit ratios.  While we are all committed to standing up for our children and fighting stereotypes about children with mental health needs, we also know that stigma still packs a powerful wallop and can be deeply rooted in society’s beliefs.  One mother commented recently, “Sometimes the stigma can be worse than the illness.” As many as 79% of families whose children have mental health needs avoid seeking treatment for their children due to stigma.

That’s why we need children’s mental health awareness week.  We need to educate people about what works to displace what they “think” they know.  We need to call them on their ignorance and replace their beliefs with new ones.  We need to show support for children, youth and families who are seeking the care they need to counter public opinions on treatment.  Most of all, we need to say that stigma is socially unacceptable.  Stigma diminishes all of us — it lessens our possibilities, narrows how we view health and limits our future. 

In America, we fund treatment and research for people with illnesses who we see as most similar to ourselves.  Nearly everyone has a relative who is a cancer survivor and is willing to say so.  Many people have family members and friends whose children have mental health needs, but stay silent. Awareness week is a chance for all of us to speak up and speak out.

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