Early Intervention and Prevention: IT MATTERS!

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. 

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Bryce feeling good at The Frost School

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.

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Hill Day 2016 – It’s Personal

I spent the past two days at on Capitol Hill attending the National Council for Behavioral Health’s Annual Public Policy Institute and Hill Day. Hill Day is an event that brings together behavioral health providers, administrators, board members, consumers and community members from all over the country. The first day we attended sessions and workshops on federal behavioral health policy. Yesterday we “stormed” Capitol Hill meeting with Congress to advocate for better resources for mental health and addictions.

I learned so much during these two days. I was inspired. I was able to tell my story.

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Sen. Cardin took the time to meet with us at Hill Day.  Sen. Cardin is a Co-Sponsor of the Mental Health in Schools Act

We were told to tell our personal stories to our Congressmen. We were told that we could make a difference. I feel like I made a difference yesterday. I learned during these two days that by telling positive stories of hope – by showing up and telling true stories of how treatment programs work – you can show your legislators and their staff that the programs they fund can really help their constituents.

There were so many people walking around the halls of the Senate and Congressional office buildings. Each one of them had a badge on representing some organization or cause. Everyone thinks that the piece of legislation they are asking their legislator to support is the most important.

By telling our stories, our voices are powerful. I hope that at least one Representative, Senator or Hill Staffer that I met with will remember the story I told – Bryce’s story. It is a story that proves that with the right education programs and treatment, someone living with mental illness can live a stable life. I hope that when going through all of the Bills that he or she has to decide to co-sponsor or vote in favor of or against, maybe Bryce’s story will pop up and it just might make a difference.

I need it to make a difference. Not for me, or for Bryce. But for this country. What I have known, and what I learned even more these past two days, is that we as a country are facing a Mental Health Crisis. Linda Rosenberg, the President of the National Council told us that we have done great over the years raising awareness for Mental Health – but Awareness is not enough, we NEED ACTION. Suicide rates are on the rise. Deaths as a result of overdose are also on the rise. This is Not Acceptable.

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Patrick Kennedy speaking to Hill Day attendees before the advocacy meetings.

Former US Congressman Patrick Kennedy spoke at Hill Day. Kennedy told us that the mental health crisis is affecting our life expectancy rate in America. This is Not Acceptable. He said that Congress needs to Go Big Before they Go Home when it comes to Mental Health legislation. We can not allow Congress to pass a bill that looks good on the surface, that makes Congress “feel good” because they addressed the issue, but in reality has no impact because it does not fund any new programs.

So what exactly did we do at Hill Day?

We asked our legislators to co-sponsor or support several different pieces of legislation. If they already supported it, we thanked them and asked them to try and get it moving to get it passed. Specifically, some of that legislation included:

The Mental Health First Aid Act  (S. 711/H.R.1877) . Mental Health First Aid is a public education program that helps people identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use conditions. When you take the class, you learn a five-step action plan to reach out to a person in crisis and connect them to a professional, peer or other help. This Bill would provide much needed funding to get people trained in Mental Health First Aid at low-cost.

The Mental Health in Schools Act The Mental Health in Schools Act(S. 1588/H.R. 1211) builds on a successful program known as Safe Schools/Healthy Schools. It would expand the availability of comprehensive, school-based mental health and substance use disorder services in communities across the country. It would place on-site qualified mental health and substance use professionals in schools across the county to provide behavioral health services for students at no charge.

Expand the Excellence in Mental Health Act.  (S. 2525/H.R. 4567) The Excellence in Mental Health Act was created as part of the Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014. It was a two-year, 8-state initiative to expand Americans’ access to community-based mental health and addiction care. It lays the foundation for a transformation of our delivery system by setting standards for Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHCs) and establishing a Medicaid payment rate that supports the costs for these clinics. The expansion of the Act would allow all 24-states that are planning for these clinics to continue planning and creating these much needed service systems.

These bills increase services in schools, increase community-based services for those living with mental illness and provide funding to help identify those that need mental health services to provide early-intervention and care. These bills are not controversial. They are common sense.

While Hill Day was inspirational, educational and hopeful, it was also frustrating. Frustrating because although everyone we spoke to told us they agree with us, they understand us, and they listened to us, there is no guarantee anything will get passed.

I hope Congress can find the money to fund these bills. If we do not find the money to fund necessary services for mental health, we will find ourselves falling further into the mental health crisis, and that I know we can not afford.

We ALL have a story to tell.

I urge you to contact your Senators and Representatives and tell your story. Ask them to support one of these bills or other mental health legislation. You can read more about the bills here.

Dear Parent of a Child Diagnosed with a Mental Illness

Dear Parent of a child who was just diagnosed with a mental illness,

I know how you are feeling. I remember when I first got my son’s official diagnosis – ADHD and Mood Disorder – NOS. There were other words. I remember it said Bryce would not be able to attend kindergarten without medication. I was sad, scared and worried. I am sure you are feeling all of these emotions and others.IMG_0173

Your expectations for your child may change, but this is not the end of the world. No matter what diagnosis your child was given, nothing about your child has changed. You still have the same child who you love, laugh with and cry with. Your child will still make you smile and still piss you off a lot.

Hearing or Reading the words – whatever they are – Depression, Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, etc. is hard, but they are just words. Do not worry so much about the exact diagnosis. It can change. It will change. Bryce’s has changed several times. It will probably change again. Unfortunately, mental illness is not an exact science.

Having been through this, I can offer some advice. Hopefully you find something here that’s helpful.

  • Find professionals that you like. If you are not comfortable with the psychiatrist, social worker or therapist you are using, change. You have every right to do that. Ask for recommendations from people you know and trust. Each time you change, you tell your story again so it can be tiring, but if it is to find a good fit, it is worth it.
  • Ask for help at your child’s school. Ask the school for an evaluation so your child can get accommodations – a 504 plan or an Individual Education Plan (IEP). Even if you do not think your child needs help academically, there may come a time where they need breaks, social skills support or other accommodations. They deserve this. They may also qualify for OT, Speech Therapy, etc. There are so many resources out there that you may not be aware of. If you can afford it, hire an Educational Consultant. You will get more services quicker because the school systems will know you mean business.
  • Understand the diagnosis, but do not worry so much about it. Make sure that the professionals working with you are treating the behaviors and symptoms – the impulses, the depression, the hyperactivity, psychosis, anger, etc. The diagnosis may matter, however, for certain services and resources. For example, in some circumstances. if you get an autism diagnosis, there may be more resources available to your child.
  • Research all you can. Find out what programs are offered in your area for support, therapy, social skills, etc. For example, are there any organizations that offer after-school activities for children with special needs.
  • Join a support group. If you want to talk to other parents going through the same thing, look for a support group in your area. Most NAMI chapters offer one. NAMI also offers classes that teach the basics of supporting a family member with a mental illness. If you join an online support group, DO NOT listen to everyone on the Internet. Everyone’s situation is different and some people only want to complain. Find what helps you, take breaks when it seems tough, and find the support that is helpful to you.
  • Take care of yourself. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Self care is crucial in order to be a good parent.
  • Try not to worry and think too much about the future. This is incredibly hard to do, but you have to try and take things day by day. Sometimes even hour by hour. Things will change. A few years ago, I was told to prepare for the fact that my son would most likely have to live in a Residential Treatment Center. He was that unstable. He had five hospitalizations, including one that lasted for 45 days. I was not wanting to accept that. I worked hard to get him into a Therapeutic Day School. We changed his medications. We changed his behavior plan. We worked on his self-esteem. It took time, but we worked hard to make things better.  Things have changed – the diagnosis – now it is Bipolar, PDD, Anxiety, ADHD. He has sensory processing disorder as well and language delays.images

    But with all of those words, Bryce is also doing better. He is now mostly stable, has been stable for a few years and is doing well. There are bumps in the road, but that is ok. Right now my son has a friend from school over and they are going to the Trampoline place tonight, together. Typical teenage Friday night behavior.

So, what do I tell you as a parent? There is hope. There will be ups and downs.

Just do your best, whatever that best is on any given day. That is what I was told, and that is what I pass on to you.

Karen’s Story – Hope and Recovery

I want to write about a truly remarkable woman who means a lot to me – Karen, Bryce’s birthmother.

It makes sense to write about Karen. Without Karen, there is no Bryce and no story to tell. Without Karen, I would not have the life that I have. Karen is a big reason I am the person that I am today. And I like to think that I am part of the reason that Karen is the person that she is today as well.

When I met Karen, she had just given birth to Bryce and she was handcuffed to a hospital bed. She had just made me a mother and she was beautiful. She asked me to buy her a comb. That was all she wanted. Of course. I went down to the hospital gift shop and got her one. It was the least I could do. She gave me a son – I could give her a comb.

When Bryce was born, Karen was suffering from drug addiction and had been for years. She was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She had a completely different life than me. But she was a smart young woman. I could tell that when I met her. I could also tell that from the amazing letter she wrote to Bryce when he was born. In that letter she told Bryce about the difficult decision she made in choosing adoption, that she chose Terry and I to be his parents and that she loved him very much. They were words that any parent would want their son to hear. I could not have written a better letter if I tried.

Karen struggled with drug addiction for years. She was in and out of jail, hung out with a bad crowd and soon after giving birth to Bryce, lost her mother to a heart attack which just made things worse for her. But Karen did not give up. And I did not give up on her.

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Karen, Bryce and Tracy at the Hope Cottage Christmas Party.  Karen is still dealing with addiction at this time, but sees Bryce through the adoption agency

I cared so much for her for what she had given me, and I wanted to help her. Since we had an open adoption, I wanted to and was able to be in touch with her. Given her background, at first our contact was only through Hope Cottage, our adoption agency. I wished I could have done more for her. I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her how much I loved her and that anything she needed, I would give her. But I couldn’t do that. My responsibility was to Bryce, to do everything I could to take care of him. And at that time, Karen was using drugs and was in and out of jail. Having a close connection to her would not have been in the best interest of Bryce.

I wanted her to know I cared. She was Bryce’s birthmother. I called to check on her when she was in prison and found out I was on her visitor’s list. I had no idea she would put me on her list. It meant so much to me that she put me on her list, that I went and visited her in prison. I was like a fish out of water, but it was an incredible experience. She was so surprised to see me. I just needed to know how she was, and I needed her to know that I thought of her and loved her.

Karen and I stayed in touch. I would send letters to Hope Cottage, she asked for pictures of Bryce, and she wrote letters back.

Years later I found out Karen was clean. She tells me that one day she was in church and “the addiction just left her.” She says that when in jail, she voluntarily admitted herself into a rehabilitation program. She felt that she was only being “warehoused” in jail, and if she didn’t get help, there was no other hope.

When Karen was released, she held on to her Hope. She started attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, got a sponsor and followed their step work. She did service work for others and kept going to church.

Karen has been clean for 7 years. She got a college degree, works full-time and is getting a Master’s in Addiction Counseling.

Karen is a true story of Recovery. It was not an easy road for her, and this does not begin to tell the details of it. But Recovery is possible.

Karen’s story is one of Hope. Mental illness and addiction can drag you down, but there is always a way back up.  We must continue to advocate for funding for recovery programs as well as funding for mental health as the two often go hand in hand.  Bryce’s birthmother is a true example of Strength and Recovery. I know that Strength and Hope have been passed on to Bryce.

Thank you Karen for allowing me to share part of your story. We love you. I know fate brought us together for so many reasons.

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Strength and Hope – Karen and Bryce two years ago during a trip to Dallas