When Michael was three years old, he began to have temper tantrums — outbursts so severe they would last for three or more hours at a time. He would repeatedly bang his head against the wall in a fit of rage, giving himself cranial lacerations.
These episodes were sporadic and unpredictable, bringing his mother, Liza Long, to a constant state of fear and — eventually, she would admit — shame.
Sensing something wasn’t quite right with Michael, Long followed her maternal instincts and took him to see a pediatrician. There, Long was informed that her son’s self-destructive and explosive behavior was perfectly normal. “He’s just being a boy,” she was told on numerous occasions by different professionals.
Because of the doctors’ opinions, it wasn’t until Michael was seven that he was finally taken to see a psychiatrist. Now, more than a decade later, he has since been diagnosed with several different mental disorders and is still being evaluated for autism, along with sensory integration issues.
The lack of medical diagnosis and insight that misdirected the Longs and kept Michael from receiving the prompt treatment he needed for years is still being offered in 2013 — not in a malicious, deceitful sense; rather, there is simply not enough knowledge available about children’s mental health. As a result, children who desperately need mental health care are overlooked, misdiagnosed, or worse, ignored.
Children’s psychiatrists are sorely needed, yet much too scarce. Wait times for appointments are off the charts. Children’s mental hospitals are few and far between. For children like Michael, his family, and our nation as a whole, this is simply unacceptable.
And Liza Long, Michael’s mother, is on a nationwide mission to turn things around.
Long, the self-described “Anarchist Mom”, and her son, Michael, who suffers from juvenile bipolar disorder and other mental afflictions, are seeking to revolutionize children’s mental healthcare across America. Long is the well-known author of “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”, a blog entry she penned on the very day of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting. The post went viral almost immediately, and Long unwittingly become a national voice for children’s mental illness (hence her nickname “the accidental advocate”). Her belief is that the stigma and general lack of knowledge surrounding mental illness — especially children’s mental illness — inhibits the open discourse necessary to finding a solution.
An excerpt from her blog post that went viral:
No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”
Long’s first point? Education.
The most recent statistic in children’s mental health is that one in five children suffer from a mental illness. Twenty percent of our nation’s children — right now, and at any given point in time — are suffering from a mental disorder or disease. Some will never know it and never seek or receive proper treatment.
“We need education for our pediatricians, better research, and reformed healthcare for those who suffer from mental illness. We mothers need to be open about our stories and share them in order to build a community for ourselves, to lift up and support one another. It’s our job to bring light to this issue, for our kids’ futures,” Long said.
Right here in Bexar County, for example, an estimated 80,000 children are currently suffering from mental illness or an emotional or behavioral disorder. Of these children, 50% of them will drop out of school if left untreated, and 50% of those dropouts will turn to drugs and alcohol as an escape that inevitably proves destructive and self-destructive.
Second, Long emphasizes the importance of research. She cites the developments in cancer statistics to emphasize her petition for better research, pointing out that each year, the amount of cancer-related deaths continues to decrease. Yet with regards to mental illness, the amount of diagnoses continues to skyrocket. We simply do not know as much as we should.
So, why is there such a lack of resources, treatment, and help for children who suffer from mental illness?
Long’s answer is her third point. Simply stated, there’s a stigma. There is shame. No one is willing to talk or be open about the struggle. It’s “too embarrassing”. For Long and mothers like her, it’s the shame of admitting that her child is not perfect, or even more difficult yet — admitting that she needs help as the parent of a child suffering from mental illness. As Long says, however, there is no shame in doing the right thing for the child.
“Mothers point fingers, people wonder how bad of a parent I must be when my son has outbursts like that,” she confessed. “And it’s not just me feeling like this — it’s any mother with a child suffering from mental illness. I used to be too afraid to speak up.”
While Long was composing one of her more recent blogs, she asked Michael what he would say if given the opportunity. His answer is heartbreaking.
“Tell them I’m not a bad kid. Tell them I want to be well.”
Michael’s desire to be well is the general consensus among children suffering from mental illness — they want to be well. And in order to do that, they need the right help. In order to get that help, the shame and fear must be dispelled.
Unfortunately, this fear is something that Long has found to be all-too-common among the mothers of mentally ill children. She and Michael have been the victims of discrimination even in their hometown of Boise, Idaho. When Michael was in elementary school, a mother of one of his classmates mounted an anonymous campaign to have Michael kicked out of school because he was “ruining the other kids’ classroom education.” Another anonymous complaint suggested that Long have Michael lobotomized, that the procedure would be the best option for him in the long run.
This kind of discrimination may seem extreme and even appalling, but — sadly — is not uncommon when it comes to mental illness. Long attributes these kinds of personal attacks to the lack of education and available in-depth information on the subject, and the general unwillingness of the American community to talk about it.
However, progress is being made — especially here in Texas. We have a facility right here in San Antonio that is working toward a solution, and it happens to be the largest in the state. The Clarity Child Guidance Center in Northeast San Antonio is pioneering child and adolescent mental health care in Texas. Clarity is a small hospital located within an inviting green campus especially designed for young people, a facility that provides a range of services to children ages 3-17, including crisis stabilization, psychiatric evaluations, and ongoing therapy for both inpatient and outpatient cases.
Rebecca Helterbrand, Vice President of Resources and Development at Clarity, poignantly stated, “If 80,000 children in our city were diagnosed with leukemia or diabetes or heart disease, there would be a deafening public outcry to help them. But this is the problem: there are 80,000 sick children right here in our city. Mental illness is the epidemic.”
A few days after her presentation at TEDx San Antonio, on Oct. 14 Clarity will sponsor an evening of discussion about children’s mental health at the Whitley Conference Center at The Oblate School of Theology. Liza Long, the Anarchist Mom herself, will be the key speaker and Robert Rivard will serve as the conversation moderator. The event is a part of the One in Five Minds awareness campaign, named for the statistical number of children that experience a mental, emotional or behavioral health disorder.
The event is free, but seating is limited, so to reserve a ticket email Liz Breitman at email@example.com, or call her at 210-582-6497.
“I want people to find their voice like I did, and that means we have to be open about what we’re experiencing. We have to hold each other up and support one another. Before we get to the solution, we have to be able to discuss the problem,” Long exhorted.
In San Antonio, the discussion has started. Let’s get involved.
Sarah Hedrick is a San Antonio native, Baylor grad, theatre fanatic, music lover, and freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahthelyd.