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The statistic is staggering: One in five children is afflicted with mental illness or a behavioral disorder. Some San Antonians have heard these numbers several times since Liza Long has been in town and even more will as the Clarity Child Guidance Center‘s campaign for children’s mental illness awareness, “One in Five Minds,” gains traction locally and, organizers hope, nationally.
Monday evening, as a part of the One in Five Minds campaign which launched in May, Clarity hosted an evening of conversation with Long — author, educator, and now, nationally known children’s mental health advocate.
Long, who hails from Idaho and is the single mom of four, one of whom has mental illness, spoke of the backwards healthcare system of her state. Like many other states where public policy and awareness of children’s mental health is sorely deficient, Idaho’s only treatment facilities for young mental patients is through the juvenile justice system.
Long unwittingly became a national voice for children’s mental illness after writing “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” a blog entry published after the Newtown, Conn. school shooting in which 26 people were killed by Lanza after he killed his own mother, Nancy, at home before arriving at the school. The incident revealed, for many, what is at the root of some of these mass killings: a broken mental health system. The post went viral almost immediately, hence Long’s nickname “the accidental advocate.”
Long and other mothers with mentally ill children have to charge their children with crimes in order to get them into “the system” where they can be helped, she explained, even though that means stigmatizing them as criminals who need to be incarcerated. Once in the department of juvenile corrections, a child can receive an array of social services: individual and group therapy, medications, and psychosocial rehabilitation. Once the child is released from the facility or has completed probation, however, these resources disappear and the child is again subjected to the months-long waiting periods for access to treatment.
Fred Hines, President and CEO of the Clarity Child Guidance Center, introduced Long to the packed meeting room at the Oblate School of Theology. “Stigma creates silence, and silence creates barriers. It’s time to talk,” he said.
Clarity Child Guidance Center and its satellite facilities are the only nonprofit treatment centers specializing in children ages 3-17 in San Antonio and South Texas. As a United Way agency, the center also provides care for children who could not otherwise afford to receive treatment.
Moderated by Robert Rivard, Monday’s discussion was attended by mental healthcare professionals, juvenile court judges, city officials, students, and those passionate about dispelling the stigma associated with mental disorders.
“Dr. Michelson, I’ve observed Liza’s son and he’s a brilliant, well spoken young man. Is it perplexing at all that this can happen to such an intelligent kid? Have you found that this is common?” Rivard asked of panelist Dr. Soad Michelson, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist at Clarity and president and senior medical director of Southwest Psychiatric Physicians. Dr. Michelson is also a clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
“What I’ve found is that mental illness doesn’t discriminate,” Dr. Michelson said. “It can happen to anyone at any given point in a lifetime. (Talking) about it is the first step, seeking treatment is the next.”
Others around the nation joined via live stream broadcast. Justice Luz Elena Chapa, fellow advocate and partner with Clarity, came to voice her support along with district and county judges including Michael LaHood, Lisa Jarrett, Sandee Bryan Marion, Michael Mery, David Canales, Laura Parker, and District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales.
Attendees heard a new round of startling statistics from the “Anarchist Soccer Mom” blogger and author, whose new book, “The Price of Silence,” will be published by Penguin.
“Over 1,000 children die each year from leukemia,” Long said. “While this number is a tragedy, there are over 4,000 children who will take their own lives this year.”
According to National Cancer Institute and National Institute of Mental Health budget proposals, she said, the amount mental illness research receives annually — approximately $1.4 billion — is in stark contrast with that given to cancer research — approximately $4.8 billion.
When put in perspective with other serious illnesses, children’s mental healthcare is simply not receiving the funding it needs in order to meet community needs.
“We know that mental illness and suicide are directly linked, and the number of suicides is four times as many cancer deaths, yet mental illness research is still on the bottom of the funding totem pole,” Long said.
Clarity and individual advocates like Long are trying to change that and make more people aware that one in five children is afflicted with some mental illness, equal to 80,000 mostly untreated children in Bexar County where there is both a lack of funding and public conversation about the crisis.
Texas ranks last — 51st — in children’s mental health care in America, behind every other state and the District of Columbia. The average wait time for a child in need of treatment from a qualified physician is anywhere from six to nine months.
“Bear in mind, mental health cases are critically urgent, so to have to wait that long can sometimes mean life or death,” said Rebecca Helterbrand, vice president of resources and development at Clarity, during a conversation before the event at Clarity’s main office in northeast San Antonio.
Around Clarity’s green, park-like campus, children are walking, talking, and laughing with one another – it’s easy to forget it’s actually a hospital. In fact, Clarity is the de facto state hospital. Being the largest children’s mental health facility in Texas, Clarity will take anyone between the ages of 3-17 in San Antonio and the entire state.
The doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, and caretakers at Clarity are all taking part in a revolutionary form of mental healthcare. Their collaborative relational technique is seeing vastly different results than the standard reward and consequence therapy model.
“There’s a reason something is happening,” Helterbrand said. “There’s a reason a child wakes up screaming at 3 a.m. Eighty percent of these kids are dealing with some kind of trauma. Instead of punishing them, we want to figure out why. We want to build that relationship, and work with them from that place of trust.”
While they strive to be the very best in children’s mental healthcare, there is simply not enough room, nor the money to expand as needed, Hines said. With an annual budget of around $20 million to try to serve the 80,000 afflicted minds in Bexar County and the thousands beyond, there is still much to be raised.
By January of 2015, Hines said, Clarity looks to nearly double its facilities, and add another 20 hospital beds to the already-existing 52. But in a county with so many children needing treatment, 72 beds is only the beginning.
Clarity will hold fundraisers (or “friendraisers” as Hines prefers to call them) throughout the year, a community favorite being the Clarity Pinwheel 5k that happens over the summer. Sign up for their email updates to receive future information, or visit their donation page to give immediately.
Sponsored and founded by the Clarity Child Guidance Center, One in Five Minds is on a crusade to raise awareness and erase the looming stigma surrounding the subject of mental illness, especially as it pertains to children.
“(By) inviting guest speakers of a national stature like Liza (Long), we’re starting to reach beyond San Antonio,” said Gerard Migeon, Clarity’s director of marketing. “Our goal is awareness and education so that more kids get help, and if it can help parents and kids in Maine or in California, all the better.”
Sarah Hedrick is a San Antonio native, Baylor grad, theatre fanatic, music lover, and freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahthelyd.