One in Five: Canada’s Crisis In Children’s Mental Health; Part 7: Time To End The Shame And Save Young Lives

May 02, 2009
Denise Davy
The Hamilton Spectator

An interesting thing happened when I began my research into the crisis in children’s mental health.

People started telling me stories. Whenever it came up that I was working on this issue, they started pouring out.

They came unsolicited and spontaneously, and were often heartbreaking.

There was the mom at my daughter’s gymnastics class who is trying to find the right services for her daughter who has a mental health disorder.

There was my former coworker who told me about the struggles he has had trying to find help for his daughter whose behaviour is often out of control.

There was my neighbour who told me about her teenager who suffered from such severe depression that there were times they were unable to get him out of bed.

Sometimes the mom who was sharing the story was someone I’d known for years. Yet this was the first time they’d mentioned anything to me about their child’s disorder.

If the parent I was talking to wasn’t directly affected, they knew a parent who was.

I mentioned my experience to Michael Kirby, who has been around the issue of children’s mental health a long time.

He’s chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and helped author Out Of The Shadows At Last, a 2006 federal report that exposed the cruel realities of mental health.

“You made it safe for them to talk to you,” said Kirby. “What your fellowship has done is say you’re one of them, and it’s OK to talk to you.”

Kirby knows this experience. He has listened to the stories — and he has shared his own about growing up with a sister who suffered from depression.

Many parents told him they quickly learned not to share their story with strangers because the vast majority wouldn’t know what to say, or would say something negative.

Many made the comparison with having a physical health problem, saying if their child had been in the hospital for leukemia, food would have been stacked up at their door.

As Keli Anderson, founder of Vancouver-based support group FORCE, told me: “They didn’t give me casseroles. They judged me.”

It is a tragic and sad situation when parents feel they have to keep their child’s mental health problems quiet lest they be judged.

Their stories and experiences sadly highlight the intrinsic link between silence and stigma, and how one exists in total tandem with the other.

Silence is very much the outcome, the offshoot of stigma; while stigma feeds, indeed thrives, because of the silence.

A 2007 survey by Kinark Child And Family Services in Markham, the largest children’s mental health centre in Ontario, showed that 38 per cent of Canadian adults would be embarrassed to admit their child or teen had a mental illness, such as anxiety or depression.

Past experiences have taught them, trained them, that it’s best to stay silent.

Parents such as Sarah Cannon, whose daughter Emily was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, told me every time she has given a media interview there has been an inevitable backlash in the form of hate mail and nasty calls.

“I’ll know that things have changed when I only get good comments,” she told me.

The shame parents feel when their child has a mental health problem is part of a larger stigma around mental health that has been around for centuries.

It was given a larger voice in 1967 when Austrian educator Bruno Bettelheim cruelly accused the cold and distant “refrigerator mother” of causing children’s autism.

That blame has extended across the spectrum of children’s mental health problems, from autism to schizophrenia.

Despite countless medical studies that dispute parents are to blame for their child’s mental health problem, that belief is very much alive today.

Ask parents such as Diane Simon. Her 16-year-old son committed suicide after years of struggling with bipolar disorder. Simon learned early on not to share her son’s problems with other parents.

Things haven’t changed much, said Simon, who learned that the Latin root of the word stigma comes from the words to mark or brand with shame, and was used to refer to criminals who were marked as part of their punishment. People instantly recognized them as criminals and shunned them.

“We don’t burn or carve people today but we still mark them,” said Simon.

“We mark them by moving to the other side of the street. We say, ‘that guy looks funny.’ It’s the very same thing. There’s no weapon in our hand but we’re still marking them by moving to the other side of the street.”

We all pay a price when parents feel too ashamed to talk about their child’s mental health problem. We pay because when the issue isn’t blazed into the public’s consciousness, it doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. And that affects us all.

Take a look at your child or grandchild’s classroom photo. Consider that one in five children has some form of mental health problem. That means in your typical classroom four or five kids are troubled.

Some of them are in need of full-time help, but the shortage of educational assistants and policies that often prohibit students from getting a full-time EA mean most children are going without.

That means time will be taken from your child’s teacher — and your child — to help those students. And that’s not good for anyone. Mainstreaming is a good policy, but the resources have to be in place to make it work.

The anger and frustration parents have been feeling about the shortage of services has been bubbling to the surface. More parents are refusing to stay silent.

They’re parents such as Anderson and Cannon and Gaby Wass of St. Thomas. All have children with a mental health problem. All are vocal.

They’re angry, they’re speaking out and they’re meeting with politicians to demand their stories finally be heard.

I have been humbled by their courage and strength. They deal with these issues every day, speaking to teachers to make sure their child is being helped
in school, sifting through information to find the right services.

They’re often exhausted, but they refuse to give up. The stories they shared with me about their children are the stories of all our children. They are our daughters and sons, our nieces and nephews, our friend’s children, the children in our neighbourhoods, the children in our kid’s classrooms.

We should care about them because they number in the tens of thousands. And they are our future.

They will become the adults we need to run the machines, build the buildings, create the music and write the books.

For children to grow up and become healthy productive adults, they need to be healthy in their early years. That’s a given.

As English poet Alexander Pope wrote in 1732, “Just as the twig is bent, so the tree’s inclined.”

Seventy per cent of adults living with a mental health problem developed symptoms before they were 18. That is why, more than anything else, we need to have programs in place at an early age.

Without that help, children in need could become the headlines of tomorrow. People such as Vincent Li, a diagnosed schizophrenic who believed he was acting on orders from God when he beheaded and cannibalized a stranger on a Greyhound bus last July. Or 19-year-old Ashley Smith who hanged herself inside a federal prison in Kitchener in 2007. Ashley had been in obvious need of mental health services from a young age, but never received them. By the time she was 15,
she was in a youth jail.

On the global front, there was the 17-year-old boy who shot and killed 15 people in Germany before turning the gun on himself.

We need to look at the context that led to each of these tragedies. And we need to listen to Ontario’s child advocate, Irwin Elman, who says kids are dying because of shortfalls in the system.

We need a policy that stipulates that each time a politician considers introducing a new program, a new law, they must consider the impact on all children.

The question they should ask themselves, said Elman, is, “How will this benefit the kids?”

“That would go a long way to show how they value children.”

Finally, we need to take an honest look at the system and ask why we are so willing to pay so little attention to children’s mental health.

We can’t afford to turn our backs on the issue and our children any longer. We can’t afford to deny and minimize the problem.

We can’t afford to look away.


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