This post was featured on The Mighty. It brings back memories every time it is published, but it is important for others to see as well.
Many of you know my story. You know that Bryce is now doing well. He is in a full-time therapeutic school and gets the support that he needs. It took years to get Bryce at The Frost School. He struggled immensely in elementary school and it was a difficult road. We asked for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) as soon as he started kindergarten and were told that he did not qualify. We tried again in first grade and he was given a 504 plan which is not binding and does not give the same protections as an IEP. Bryce continued downhill – he was not completing schoolwork, he was suspended and restrained repeatedly and he was hospitalized numerous times. It was traumatic.
This summer I saw Bryce’s second grade teacher for the first time in years. We were chatting about how well Bryce is now doing. She told me, “The year I had Bryce was the hardest year I’ve ever taught.”
When his second grade teacher said those words to me it devastated me. She did not mean it to cause me pain though. She did not mean to suggest she didn’t want him as her student. She didn’t say it because Bryce was a difficult student. I mean – he was. But she meant it a different way. It was hard on her emotionally. She saw Bryce restrained over 10 times. She felt hopeless. When we did finally have a meeting to try and get Bryce an IEP she told the truth. She did not sugar coat anything. She told the county she spent over 60% of her time with Bryce. She told them that Bryce needed additional services, that he needed smaller class size and could not be safely maintained in the classroom. Yet, since Bryce did not even have an IEP at the time, the county determined that there was more they could try at his home school. They were not willing to fund full-time special education. Although early intervention and prevention would have benefited Bryce, the school system does not work that way. They did not yet see full failure and they believe in a least restrictive environment and maintaining children in their home schools.
Although Bryce was finally able to receive an IEP and a placement at a full-time therapeutic school in 4th grade, it should not have taken that long. The placement was recommended after Bryce spent an hour and a half banging his head on cement walls and breaking the door off of the quiet room at his school. It was finally determined then and only then that the public school could not adequately maintain him. It should never have gotten that far. There were warning signs and Bryce was not making progress in school. Bryce is in 8th grade and even though he is safe and doing well, he is years behind grade level. He struggles with every day tasks and may never catch up to his peers.
If he had gotten adequate support starting in kindergarten, could things have been different? We will never know. We tried. I had him in private therapy early on and I ASKED, BEGGED, PLEADED for services from the school but they were not provided. Why is it difficult to get our children the help they need? Why do our kids have to hit rock bottom, scream for help or hurt themselves before they are given appropriate placements?
I realize it is too costly to give support to everyone. However, early intervention and prevention matter. Research shows that early intervention works and can have long-term benefits. Providing support when the brain is still developing is crucial for children to ensure positive outcomes. Young people who struggle with mental health problems miss more school resulting in lower grades and educational outcomes than students with stable mental health. There is evidence that money can be saved in the long-run if screening procedures are in place to identify those that would benefit from extra support or special education services. That is because paying for long-term disability or hospitalization has significantly higher costs than paying for up-front interventions. However, governments and school systems are not set up to lay out money until there is a problem and need is proven. Once someone is already sick or struggling, costs for treatment skyrocket.
In addition to saving money, we can save children. Evidence shows that early intervention can improve educational outcomes and well as emotional well-being. Many people are afraid to get help for their mental health due to stigma. If teachers and school systems are trained to identify students early in a non-threatening, mainstreamed way similar to hearing and vision tests, it will become commonplace and normalized. Mental health matters as much as physical health and should be part of normal school screenings.
Having gone through the IEP process now, I have counseled many friends on what to do and what to ask for. It feels good to help others in crisis and I am happy to assist those in crisis or who need advice. I can tell you that it helps to have a lawyer or educational consultant but that can cost thousands of dollars. Many people with children that are struggling cannot afford that. We tried early on to get Bryce the help he deserved. We told the school in kindergarten of Bryce’s challenges and his diagnosis. They did nothing. It took years before they helped. It should not have to be that way.
As parents, educators, and advocates we must continue to stand up for children and ask for early intervention. We must ask for services, recommend more funding for programs and training in schools. We must make it the norm that all children get what they need. It should not be a fight, it should be a given. We owe it to our kids, our future and our communities.
I previously wrote a blog post about what I say when people ask me about Bryce. It is a difficult question to answer. I am an advocate for mental health awareness and for my son. I am a stigma fighter. I help raise awareness for mental health, I advocate for mental health reform. I volunteer for the Crisis Text Line, for Sheppard Pratt Health Care Center. I worked with adults with severe mental illness. I write this blog. My goal is to make people know that it makes you strong, not weak, to get help and that mental illness is no different than any other illness.
I have never shied away from telling people that Bryce had a mental illness, but it has often been difficult to explain or find the right words to describe him. It is sometimes difficult because you worry about how others will react or what people know about mental illness. It has also been frustrating because it has been confusing as to exactly what Bryce’s diagnosis is. When I asked my husband Terry, he says that he tells people simply that Bryce “has serious mental health issues”. For me, it depends on my own mood what I say. Sometimes I say that Bryce has severe special needs. Sometimes I say that Bryce has severe mental illness or that he has Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, Anxiety and developmental delays. That is a mouthful.
Yesterday we received the results of his most recent psychological and educational tests. The results stated that Bryce meets criteria for a child with Autism. Finally. We have tried to get that diagnosis for years. The doctor who did the testing and analyzed the results stated that Bryce probably always met the criteria. As of yesterday, I can say that Bryce is a child with Autism, Depression and Anxiety. It is a clear diagnosis and easy to say. I can say it again. Bryce is a child with Autism, Depression and Anxiety.
Nothing has changed between the day before yesterday and yesterday. Bryce is the same child today that he was last week. He is the same 14 year old he was two weeks ago, but he has a new diagnosis, a new label, a new way that I can described him. I have been given a new way that I can explain his behaviors, his quirkiness, the reasoning behind why he is the way he is.
But, along with this new diagnosis and label, I also feel guilty. I like the new way I can describe Bryce. Why? It is easier, clearer and of course, comes with less stigma. Yet, I am the one that is outspoken and fights stigma. I am the one who says it is ok to say you live with a mental illness. Bryce still has a mental illness. He still struggles everyday. But now we get to say Autism. Not one mention of Bipolar Disorder in the new report.
I want the stigma of mental illness to go away. I want people to think the same way about someone with Bipolar Disorder that they do about someone with cancer. But, even for me, even for someone who is an advocate for mental illness, it is easier to tell someone, Bryce is a child with Autism than Bryce is a child with Bipolar Disorder. It is also easier for me because it is less scary. Less scary that Bryce might hurt himself. But in reality, he still has suicidal ideation, he is still anxious and he still struggles with school.
So, does it even matter? I don’t know. I wish that I did. I want to say that it is not true. I want to say I am better than any words or labels. I want to say I am stigma free. I thought I was. But maybe all of us have a little stigma inside of us. We can only do our best.