clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

MOTHER STRUGGLES WITH HEARTBREAK OF RAISING A MENTALLY ILL CHILD

When Craig was a few hours old, his mother, Connie, remembers he tried to crawl off her shoulder. She assumed his activity meant he was particularly bright and active.

Looking into his little face and stroking tiny fingers and toes, she never dreamed that one day her emotional well-being would depend, in part, on her ability to "create a little distance between us. For myself to survive, I have to be clinical in a lot of my approach to Craig."When he was very young, doctors dismissed problems as hyperactivity. As he grew older, they added to his list of problems: He's got a learning disability. He also suffers from attention deficit disorder.

Now Craig is 13, a tall, handsome boy with behavior patterns that resemble those of a 3-year-old. His mother has put away her dreams that he will "outgrow his behavior."

He has schizophrenia.

"It's hard because society doesn't really accept that some adults are mentally ill," said Carol Braegger, chairwoman of the Utah Alliance for the Mentally Ill's children and adolescents committee and mother of a mentally ill teenager. "So we really have a hard time with the concept of children who are mentally ill."

What society can't accept, she said, is that mental illness is a physical problem. "The brain is subject to disease just like the bladder or liver. If your son was lying on the floor in diabetic shock, you wouldn't tell him to stop doing that. But if someone's mentally ill, that's precisely what we do. We refuse to treat mental illness - bipolar disease, schizophrenia, autism, depression - as a disease, though one in five families deals with someone who is mentally ill. Mental illness puts more people in the hospital than cancer, heart disease and arth-ritis." The National Institute of Mental Health says 10 million American children are mentally ill.

In a Division of Mental Health survey, 71 percent of those questioned believed mental illness was the result of "emotional weakness." Bad parenting was blamed by 65 percent of respondents. Sinful behavior causes it, according to 35 percent. And 43 percent believe the mentally ill brought the problem on themselves.

Like most diseases, mental illness varies in form and degree from person to person. Some are mildly delusional. For most, medication is helpful. Doctors have not yet found a combination that works for Craig.

"For my son, it's like the wiring's crossed," Connie said. "He can have an awful cut but feel no pain. Yet if he's hungry or tired, everything's blown out of proportion. He's always running; he never sleeps. I've had him threaten me with knives and a bat, but he can have a great sense of humor and be really fun.

"He talks to horses and they answer him. If I don't hear them, that's my problem. He makes horrible messes and I'm always exhausted and frustrated. There's grieving and guilt and love all mixed up together in my life. We don't go a lot of places because people do not understand, and it's hard when people always look at you like you're a candidate for bad parent of the year.

"There are the `normal' teen things: rebellion, talking back, eating problems, loudness, sloppiness. But with a mentally ill child, it's more so - amplified. I've had to accept that I love my child, but I don't like what's going on. Then I've felt guilty because aren't we always supposed to be loving and patient, particularly with those who have an illness? We can have mixed emotions about people who are healthy. If someone is ill, we can't."

Despite the dedication of people who are really working to provide services for the mentally ill, Braegger said the prospect in Utah is gloomy. Programs and services are not a priority. And until they become one, she said, "it's a straight uphill fight."

For information on mental illness, contact the Alliance, 322-9174.

*****

(Additional information)

Few children with mental illnesses get help in Utah

An estimated 20,000 children in Utah have a mental illness, but only 3,500 are receiving services, according to the chairman of the adolescent and children committee of the Utah Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

Carol Braegger listed several things that "have to happen" for these young people:

- Doctors, law enforcement and school officials have to be trained to recognize symptoms of mental illness, a disease that "can't just be wished or talked away."

- Programs need to be established and funded for mentally ill children and adolescents. Waiting lists for services are sometimes two or three years long, she said. Needed programs include residential, day care, family respite and others.

- Employment options should be available.

- Training programs for mental health professionals need to recognize that mental illness doesn't just spring into being in adults.