Parents and Teachers as Allies – Find help, find hope.
By Rebecca Duke
A number of our school-aged children and adolescence are suffering in silence, feeling desperately alone, not knowing what is wrong, why they feel different from their classmates, or that help is available. I know because I was one of those children.
Throughout elementary school I dealt with extreme separation anxiety and had extended absences due to mysterious and unexplainable headaches. My parents or teachers were most likely not aware that recurrent absence is the number one sign of anxiety in young students, or, that my day dreaming, inability to sit still and learning difficulties were also signs of early-onset mental illness. In addition, I had an unsatisfiable desire for sweets and carbohydrates and often had sugar binges. In children, this is symptomatic of Bipolar Disorder. Despite difficulty, I progressed through elementary and middle school into high school without intervention or counseling.
The most observable and notable changes in character occurred in my high school years. Although I was a gifted athlete, participating in sports no longer gave me confidence or joy. I stopped caring about my grades and started cutting classes or entire school days. There were periods of months during which I'd refrain from socializing and isolate at home. I started to gain weight, smoke cigarettes and marijuana and drink alcohol. These changes in personality and behavior were deemed to be the rebellious adolescent stage, presumably one that I'd grow out of. I went on to college and in my senior year experienced my first, full blown, psychotic episode and was hospitalized.
Over the last twenty-five years, I've been hospitalized about ten times due to severe psychosis. As a result, mental illness has drastically changed my life. Delusions and hallucinations are terrifying, not only to me, but also to my family. The extreme fear, anxiety and paranoia that come with misinterpreting reality, the disappointment and depression that follow a hospitalization, and the racing thoughts and mania, are all debilitating and life altering. Mental illness has obnoxiously and repeatedly interfered with, and in many cases destroyed, valued relationships, as well as my educational goals and career aspirations.
Today, we know that early intervention significantly betters the prognosis for the future of a person with mental illness. The Fall 2013 edition of the NAMI Advocate included the article “Research: Let's Talk About It” by Thomas R. Insel, M.D. He writes, “It is during this interlude before psychosis when intervention could prevent psychosis.” In other words, if intervention occurs before a psychotic episode, there's a good chance the individual will not have psychotic episodes.
Recently, I read another article entitled “What to Do When Your Adolescent's Behavior Changes” by Tisha Miller and Shawna Weaver that was printed in a publication called Together AZ. Regarding drugs and alcohol, they write, “There is an evident need for preventative education and support for adolescents and young adults, as well as parents. This includes not only the skills to recognize the signs of a child who is using drugs or alcohol; but learning to find constructive ways to intervene, communicate and get the appropriate support needed.”
Although I displayed signs of anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, I didn't receive help until just before my twenty-first birthday. I'm sure you can appreciate how much both my family and I wish we'd identified my mental health issues much earlier than we did. Back then parents, teachers and school staff were not informed about mental illness in youth or aware of its signs and how it displays or presents in children and adolescents. There wasn't training regarding the observable symptoms, or how to intervene, approach the parents, and find help for the student.
Parents and Teachers as Allies is designed to educate and inform the schools and the parents. The goal is to raise awareness about the symptoms of Early-onset Mental Illness, to offer suggestions as to how to open the dialogue between parents and teachers, and to give resources to find help for both the student and their family.
The NAMI affiliate Valley of the Sun has implemented the Parents and Teachers as Allies program in the Phoenix area by providing volunteers the necessary training to be a member of the four person team that gives this two hour presentation to teachers, school administrators, staff and parents. The team consists of a moderator, a presenter, a family member of a child with mental illness who has personal experience trying to help their child be a successful student, and, an individual living with mental illness who can speak to their own school experience. Ideally, both the moderator and presenter have worked in some capacity in or with schools. A booklet or monograph published by NAMI, entitled “Parents and Teachers as Allies – Recognizing Early-onset Mental Illness in Children and Adolescents” is given to each audience member. It's an easy to read, concise description of a number of the symptoms of a variety of early-onset mental illnesses and much more.
A number of presentations have been held in school districts around the Valley. With ever growing determination and enthusiasm, we will continue networking with school systems and parents to spread the word about this outstanding program.
The need is great and the impact, life changing.