Web-only article from "Stigma" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(6)
My first impression of the psychiatric unit at our local hospital was much the same as my 17-year-old son Kelly's: we were terrified. I knew that Kelly needed to be hospitalized-he was feeling very despondent and suicidal, and had been admitted as a voluntary patient-but I wasn't so sure that this was a place for his mental well-being. "How ironic this is," I thought. "When my son is so ill, I'm afraid that the hospital may just make him worse."
After sitting on a cot in the emergency ward for two days, Kelly was placed in the Psychiatric Assessment Unit, where he could be observed and assessed for his own safety. The only way for me to get in or out of the unit was to buzz for admittance. This was a whole new world to us-a family that had always been supportive and involved in every aspect of Kelly's life.
Kelly was quickly assessed, and then referred to the psychiatric unit across the hall. Just as I was wheeling him there, an older woman in a very zombie-like state walked out of her room. Kelly became very frightened. At that moment I had to choose between leaving my son in a relatively safe place in spite of his fear, or taking him back to my home, where I could not guarantee his safety.
Kelly was hospitalized for two months, from February 13 to April 12, 1996, which was far too long. He was exposed to more 'mental illness' than he needed exposure to at age 17. He was in an adult unit with very ill adults. Although there were many staff members who enjoyed the adolescents, they were not trained to work with adolescents, who come with their own special needs. And there was no liaison with the community at the time of his discharge; he went home with virtually no support. I still wonder why I was not told about some of the services I now know are available in our community.
Kelly hated the hospital and vowed that he would rather die than go back there. On April 3, 1997, at the age of 18, still feeling hopeless about his mental well-being, Kelly ended his suffering by taking his own life.
At the time of his death I decided to do all I could to erase the stigma of mental health, especially in children and youth. I visited the people who worked with him, and listened and learned. I threw myself into the hospital's campaign for a new adolescent psychiatric unit-I felt that if Kelly had been helped by a team of specialists whose focus was on children, it might have made a difference. I worked with the hospital foundation, speaking and promoting our hospital, because I sincerely believe in adolescent psychiatry and believe that we can provide a safe place for kids to heal. We can bring dignity to having a mental disorder, and this would start by bringing dignity to the psychiatric unit. I continue to believe in case management and in communities coming together to support and bring resilience to families when they are suffering.
Our new unit has been open for four years now, and has had its share of growing pains. Is it all that I had hoped for? My answer would have to be that nothing could measure up to the hopes and dreams I have for families dealing with sick children. But it is surely a better place for our kids than what was previously in place. The furniture is comfortable, and the unit has a kitchen where kids can make snacks and drink milk without annoying older patients. There is a school component, which gives kids a reason to get up in the morning and provides a link to normal life.
My dream for children and their families continues. I dream that all children, despite their family background or diagnosis, are treated with respect. I dream that people who work with these youth can see past the trouble to the child inside-a child crying out for help-and that they will work toward helping that child heal. And I dream that families, despite their backgrounds or place in life, will be given tools to help them improve their lives, and the lives of their children.
We need to have strong guidelines and good training for people working with our children. In my career as a teacher, I have always tried to treat students as I would like my own child to be treated. This rule has served me well. At the end of the day I know that I have done the best for the students I teach.
One thing is certain: mental illness is very complex, and can be more so when it first presents itself in children and youth. We need to provide wrap-around services for children and youth, so they are well supported in the school and community after they have left the hospital. We need to preserve the dignity of children and their families and to give them the tools needed to move forward.
Hospitalization is such a small part of a mentally ill child's life, yet it can affect the rest of his life. We need to work together to make this experience a positive one, so that the child can live a positive, productive life.
About the author
Donna is chair of the FORCE Society for Kid's Mental Health. Her journey into child and youth mental health began when her son Kelly became ill at the age of 16. She now focuses her energy into making a systemic difference for children and families.