Randi Silverman, 49, is a lawyer who was living a composed life in Armonk when her middle son began experiencing panic attacks and throwing small temper tantrums at parties. He hated the noise of the school bus and began spending more time in the nurse’s office with headaches, fever blisters, and any other ailment that might excuse him from class.
“I thought, well, I’m just not a very good mother,” Silverman says of herself at 31. “People would look at me like, ‘Why can’t she control her kid?’” As Silverman’s son bounced between bouts of anxiety and days of despondency, she shielded herself from other young mothers and neighbors in her circle of friends—and found some disappearing—leaving no one whom she could ask for advice.
“When he was 9,” Silverman recalls, “he looked at me and said, ‘I just wish I was dead.’ That’s when something had to change.” A number of doctors offered different diagnoses, one of which was bipolar disorder. “The doctor did not take the time to educate or explain it to me,” she says. “I was in denial. The stigma is still very much there.”
After a series of horrifying shootings on school campuses across the country, the concept of untreated mental illness is now in the national consciousness—and so are parents’ fears of stigmatizing their children as “emotionally disturbed,” especially in affluent areas where maintaining outside appearances is, for better or for worse, part of real life. “All of the Adam Lanzas and Elliot Rodgerses and all the violence that’s happening—that’s the topic that’s out there right now,” says Silverman. “Issues of mental illness are making the news because of these instances. Since we’re talking about it, let’s talk about it. The issue isn’t having a mental illness; the issue is having an untreated mental illness.”
We intervene only when circumstances have reached a level of crisis, noted Tom Insel, MD, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in a recent blog post. A current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study cites 13 percent of children ages 8 to 15 with a diagnosable mental disorder within the previous year. The NIMH encourages early intervention, but, even in the healthiest and wealthiest communities around the country, with top-notch schools and involved and educated parents, there’s a fearful hush surrounding the topic of mental illness, and a continued tendency to shun what we don’t understand. Parents also often seem to be unable—or unwilling—to recognize symptoms and warning signs in their children.
Irvington-based clinical child psychologist Adam Stein, PhD, says that while he finds Westchester parents very invested in their children’s health, stigma is still one of the biggest barriers to seeking treatment. “In terms of public mental health, we know this,” he says. “I don’t know if we’re doing any better of a job than we were 20 or 30 years ago.”
Interestingly, parents and educators have become increasingly adept at recognizing symptoms of, for lack of a better term, “socially acceptable” conditions and disorders, like autism and ADHD. But other mental, emotional, and learning disorders and illnesses, like depression, which often have more subtle and/or complex symptoms, are more difficult to detect.
“I’ve had challenges getting schools to understand how depression affects kids because it can be episodic and vary in the amount of impairment it causes within an individual,” says Stein, who regularly helps families collaborate with schools, even accompanying parents to on-campus meetings. “In an affluent community, sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that if we distance ourselves from problems, marry well, and provide well, we can trump biologic vulnerability.” Of course, it doesn’t work that way. “It’s nothing to be afraid of,” says Stein. “For many disorders, there’s really effective treatment, when handled with care and appropriate collaboration.”
While children with mental or emotional illnesses and disorders who attend public schools are often entitled to free services at school, Silverman didn’t know to involve the district until her son had attended five schools and had been hospitalized. “Now I know that anxiety, depression, and mood disorders can be a disability if they’re affecting your ability to learn. Our federal laws protect kids with disabilities and grant them the right to a free and appropriate education according to their needs,” she says.
To make sure that their children get a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), parents of children with mental or emotional disabilities or disorders should familiarize themselves with two laws: Individuals with Disability Education Improvement Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Depending on a number of criteria, including a child’s level of impairment, he or she may be entitled to special services or an IEP (Individualized Education Plan).
Ardsley-based psychiatrist Katarzyna Wlodarczyk-Bisaga, MD, stresses the importance of parental advocacy, noting that parents are often “shy or uneasy advocating for their children,” she says. “When problems seem to have less impact on their children now, they think, ‘Should I contact the school?’ It’s not only about today. Just because your child is not falling apart now does not mean they won’t need support.”
While Silverman thinks it’s possible that her son’s disorder may not have progressed as much if he’d been treated earlier with cognitive behavior therapy, she’s on a mission to educate schools and her community about early intervention.
With her middle son now medicated and stable, she’s become a champion for mental-health awareness, three years ago starting a Westchester support group called Parent-to-Parent Support Group for Raising Kids Who Have Issues with Mood, Anxiety, and/or Depression. To date, she has seen more than 500 families come through the group. (For more information, contact Randi Silverman at firstname.lastname@example.org.) She was also the associate producer for the short, award-winning film Illness and is set to begin work on its feature version, No Letting Go, which she co-wrote based on personal experience, in local spots around Westchester. “There are 60 million Americans who suffer from mental illness, and this includes children,” she says. “We’re still whispering about it.”