People who equate truth with fact are missing the point.

National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day: If the Diagnosis Was Cancer…

Today is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, and though I’m hard at work on something else, I didn’t want this day to go by without posting a few words in honor of the occasion. I wrote this piece a couple of years ago and it is no less true now than it was then. Severe mental illness is devastating. It places crushing burdens (financial, emotional, spiritual, relational) on families, just like other serious and life-threatening illnesses do. Shouldn’t we, as neighbors, friends, family, and society, treat illness that originates in the brain with all the sensitivity with which we treat illness that comes from other parts of the body? Shouldn’t we spend money on treatment and research for brain-based illness at the same rate we spend money on other illnesses?

If the diagnosis was cancer instead of a mental illness:

No one would tell me I could control my child’s symptoms with harsh discipline.

People wouldn’t say I’m “making” him sick because I somehow, perversely, need that.

There would be enough doctors to meet his needs.*

We would never wait weeks or months for life-saving therapies.

People would not tell me that I’m lucky because my child doesn’t have some other, equally life-threatening illness.

No one would deny that my child’s illness exists.

If my child required emergency hospitalization, he would not be turned away because of a bed shortage.

I would be allowed to give my child food and drinks (if medically safe to do so) while we waited in the ER.

If my child was hospitalized, he would never be locked up, alone because of his symptoms.

While in the hospital, I would be welcome (and even expected) to stay with him all the time, even overnight.

People would not tell me that my failures as a parent were the cause of my child’s illness.

I would be treated with sympathy instead of judgment.

My child would be treated with sympathy instead of judgment.

People would not question my motives for seeking treatment. They would accept that I want to keep my child alive.

I would not have to search carefully for a pharmacist who would dispense life-saving medications without making suspicious faces and doubtful comments about their necessity.

People would accept that, while my child’s medication regimen carries significant risks, the risks of the illness are even worse.

Drug manufacturers would have done research on my child’s medication in pediatric populations so that the doctor and I have the information we need to minimize risks.

If my child was symptomatic during school, he would not be punished for those symptoms or told to stop it right this minute!

If other children made jokes about my son’s symptoms, their parents would tell them to stop.

Other parents would not make jokes about my child’s illness.

No one would insist that television/movies/video games caused my child’s illness.

My child would go to the hospital that has fresh paint, adequate equipment, and up-to-date playrooms.**

No one would say the name of my child’s illness while making air-quotes.

No one would insist that my child needs an exorcism.

People would not scoff at the possibility that my child could die of his illness.


*Not true everywhere, but I don’t know of a single community in the US that isn’t experiencing a shortage a psychiatrists, and especially pediatric psychiatrists. 

**Again, not true everywhere, I know, but here, the “regular” hospitals are bright and cheery while the psychiatric hospitals are ugly and depressing and the staff must become masters of making-do with inadequate everything.

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2 comments to National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day: If the Diagnosis Was Cancer…

  • anne

    so on the money with this piece my dear… although i dont know you , i feel as if i do. only those with children with severe mental illness understand all of the above… my 13 year old( early onset bipolar, adhd, ptsd, )is currently inpt at a local psychiatric hospital. i think its around the 7th time… it is incredibly depressing. the whole system is so unbelievably lacking in so many area… there is very little that i can do except open my mouth to staff, to office of mental health, to my family and friends… i havent had alot of sucess with any measurable change here – there is still only 1 long term psych hospital anywhere in my area with a waiting list of 10 or 12 boys at the acute inpt psych hospital (where the visiting hrs are horrendous – 1 hr at 12 noon /1 hr at 7pm , the facility itself is lacking any kind of niceness, the staff although they try are frighteningly short staffed) waiting to go there – last year this only long term psych hospital (which is no great shakes trust me – my son spent 9 months there with absolutely no positive change in behaviors, meds, etc) closed a 12 bed unit due to lack of state funding… so the wait to get in is about 3 months. my son will sit in the acute care hospital for 3 months… i will see him a few times per week (i am a single mom with 3 other young disabled children) his siblings are not allowed to see him. he learns more and more horrifying behaviors while he sits in the acute psych hosp. it is very difficult to bring him back around to being “ok” with me each and every time he is in the acute psych hosp. but again the choices are so … none… he is at the present time a danger to himself and to those around him. he became “assaultive” at school a few weeks ago. this was the choice : psych hospital for another go round or the possiblity of the social worker (stupid stupid woman to get in the way of a tantruming 13 year old) pressing charges against my son for kicking her … i have to believe that things will improve with time, with our voices loud and clear to the folks that need to hear us but wow, in the meantime, it is the most depressing situation… anne in ny

  • staceesmith

    I think I mentioned this before (comment on another post a while back), but consider moving to Canada — the Hospital for Sick Children has an amazing pediatric psych unit, that saved my baby sister K’s life. K had four or five lengthy stays as a teen (longest was 8 wks; average likely closer to 4), the rooms always had an extra bed for a parent to stay and the staff were amazing. They even made housecalls when she was too spooked to leave the house to go to clinic. In large part due to the care she received, K’s been stable for nearly a decade (still on meds for anxiety, but sooo not a big deal) and is a social worker.

    Pryaing for you and your boy (and girl, hope she’s better cared for too). Breaks my heart to hear how hard you have to struggle to get BASIC and medically necessary care for your kids.

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