Melissa David didn’t know what to expect when she posted her son’s story on a crowdfunding website in May. She thought she had talked about her 9-year old son often enough with co-workers and other parents, but she had censored much of the truth about mothering Adrian.
When asked about her son, it was easier for David to give a monosyllabic answer than talk about the morning in May when Adrian wouldn’t stop screaming about killing himself, when she had to pull over to keep him from jumping out of the car on Interstate 35W.
So it felt cathartic to post their story on GoFundMe, to admit that she needed more support, understanding and financial help. Navigating the mental health system for a child under 12 had become frustrating and exhausting.
Much to David’s surprise, her post about her son was shared widely on social media, bringing a wave of help and encouragement. There was an outpouring of messages from friends, relatives, co-workers and some strangers who had stumbled across her story.
Heidi Mouw works with David in the adult mental health services field, but until she scrolled across her co-worker’s post on Facebook, she didn’t even know they had sons the same age. Mouw was one of several mothers who reached out to David, saying, “I thought I was the only one going through this.”
“I guess neither of us really openly talked about it,” Mouw said. “As I read her story, I just bawled and bawled. I kept thinking, ‘That could have been my son.’ ”
Like Adrian, Mouw’s 8-year-old son (whose name she asked to be withheld) has ADHD, depression, sensory issues and anxiety. Like David, Mouw has heard her son talk about blood, death and suicide.
Even though people are talking more openly about mental illness in teenagers and adults, many people still don’t believe that a child in elementary school or even younger can be suicidal or mentally ill. In addition to finding therapists, psychiatrists and treatment programs covered by insurance, parents also must fight a stigma that wrongly labels such children as “bad kids” and products of bad parenting.
“We need to erase that stigma so we don’t wait until it’s too late for these children,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). About half of adults with mental illness report having had symptoms when they were younger than 14, said Abderholden.
It falls on parents to advocate for their child — in doctor’s offices, classrooms, in the community, said Cari Wegner-Juarez, a parent educator with NAMI Minnesota. That’s why she advocates helping parents find support networks.
“So often I see parents just get frozen, paralyzed,” she said. “It’s overwhelming to figure all of this out for their child. It becomes like a full-time job.”
According to NAMI, 13 percent of children ages 8 to 15 had a diagnosable mental disorder within the previous year, most commonly ADHD, followed by mood disorder and major depressive disorder.
There is little data on the prevalence of mental illness in children younger than 8, though Abderholden said she hears from many parents who say they wait years for a mental health diagnosis, even though they started noticing concerning symptoms when their child was just a toddler.
“No one is bringing hot dishes over to your house,” Abderholden said. “It really is a lonely journey, and parents often have to seek out the needed support.”
NAMI Minnesota lobbies for more resources — residential treatment facilities that would offer a step between hospitalization and returning home, crisis services, mental health training for educators. It also provides parent-led support groups and a “warmline,” which offers parents a way to reach out, share their story and ask for help. Unlike a crisis hot line — which every county in Minnesota now has, the warmline is a place where parents can hear from one another.
After the outpouring of messages on her post, David said she feels less isolated. She and Mouw regularly share their struggles as well as their successes. Thanks to therapies, medications and support within his school, Mouw’s son is doing well.
And the crowdsourcing raised more than $8,000, enough to help pay for the new treatment program and new medication that have helped stabilize Adrian. He’s doing really well, she said. But the reality is starting to hit, she said.
“This is going to be long-term,” she wrote in an online update. She wonders what Adrian’s future will look like. Will the system support him as he gets older? Will the stigma still be there?
David ended her post with a plea: “Next time you see Adrian, treat him like any other kid. … ”
She wants people to know he’s smart, he’s funny, he’s doing well. He doesn’t want people to see him as a bad kid. So he’s working hard.
And so is she.