Wednesday, November 10, 2010

At children's mental health conference, creative people tell their stories

I rose very early and jetted off to Atlanta on Wednesday, Nov. 3 – the morning after.

I was bound for the 21st annual conference for Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health. I serve on the UPLIFT board, the federation affiliate in Wyoming, and it was my turn to attend the conference. It was especially important to concentrate on something other than the dismal election results. Wyoming is now officially a one-party state, with a full slate of Republican electeds, and a veto-proof (almost Democratic-proof) legislature.

Children’s mental health. Huge topic. I filled half of a composition book with notes and brought back reams of paper and many resource links. I’ll tackle the topics in bite-sized chunks.

Of the 750 registrants, some 150 were “youth,” mostly high school and college ages. The conference had an entire youth track. Much of it revolved around the arts. Viva Vox, an arts mentoring group from St. Louis, conducted workshops in photography, dance and drumming. There also was a youth poster competition for next year’s conference. These young people, all diagnosed with various mental health and behavior issues and substance abuse issues, brought their dance and drum performance to Sunday’s wrap-up session. They were accompanied by two musicians from the Ivory Coast, now living in the U.S. A terrific performance by talented people.

The federation goes out of its way to involve young people, and not just in some token way. They are a crucial part of the conference. They voiced lots of great ideas in sessions. In some cases, they were the centerpiece. Many of them belong to local chapters of Youth M.O.V.E. National. M.O.V.E. stands for Motivating Others through Voices of Experience. It has its own office at the federation, and advisory board members come from all over the U.S.

My two children could be members. My son was diagnosed at 5 with ADHD and spent one of his teen years in drug and alcohol treatment. My daughter was diagnosed bipolar, struggled with self-mutilation and spent most of a year in two different mental health treatment centers. She’s now in an intensive substance abuse treatment center. My wife has a learning disability and ADHD. I struggle with depression. We are veterans of the mental health treatment battles. And, as is true with most of the people at the conference, we have stories to tell.

Most involve battling the stigma of mental illness. Such a huge issue. When you’re young and different, you’re a target. Kids have to be resilient to weather the storms. Sometimes they are able to stand up to the bullying. Other times they wrap themselves in the “weirdo” label and live the life of an outcast. That can have some merits. I don’t know how many poets and artists I know who were outcasts at school and went on to fruitful arts careers. Some kids wrap themselves in the stigma and pursue drug and alcohol and other behaviors that help them fit in or so it seems. And there are those who just give up.

Wyoming has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in teen suicides. This from a Wyoming Tribune-Eagle article last summer:

Since 1999, Wyoming has had one of highest suicide rates in the nation. In 2002, 2003 and 2006, Wyoming had the highest rate of any state.

It's a statistic that many say is unacceptable, but is largely ignored or avoided by the general public.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Wyoming youth, said Keith Hotle, the suicide prevention team leader with the Wyoming Department of Health. Only car crashes kill more teens.
Cowboy up, ya’ll!

It was a much-discussed conference topic. We began Sunday morning with a memorial service for those young people who had committee suicide during the past year. At least a hundred people got up to write a name on the easels at the front of the hall. I went up and wrote, “We miss you, Charlie,” for my son’s old friend who hung himself in a closet last winter. We wrote the names in silence in deference to the dead. Many tears.

My 25-year-old son has lost three good friends to suicide since high school. One had mental illness but had just finished art school in Denver. He used a gun. Another used pills. It happens too often.

So the federation addresses the issue by holding sessions on stigma, bullying, suicide prevention and ways to assist youth as they transition from teen years to adulthood. One of the most powerful was the one that featured LGBT youth and their parents. They spoke of having mental health issues (being gay is not one of them, despite what the fundies say) and their LGBT status, especially in high school.

The four youth were Hispanic and African-American. They had at least one supportive parent – all mothers, at least in this group. There are supportive fathers such as Kirk’s dad in “Glee.” But when gay young men come out of the closet, it’s usually the fathers who have the most extreme reaction.

I came home from the conference with a greater understanding of the challenges faced by our young people. There are many other challenges when you work or are an advocate in this field. We’re all facing the fact that the new Republican House will do its darnedest to cut budgets and turn back the clock on health reform. Medicaid programs, such as Wyoming’s excellent Mental Health Waiver, will be in jeopardy. We all will have even bigger roles to play in the future. More about that later…

We have to work with our young people to make this a better place for them. I found encouragement in Youth M.O.V.E.’s activism. They are learning to embrace their realities and move forward, helping themselves and their peers, and showing adults that they can be active participants in the healing process.

At a session entitled “Social Marketing with Digital Video: Celebrating Resiliency, Bridging Divides,” I saw five videos that gave me hope. One, "Bring Change 2 Mind," was directed by Ron Howard and featured Meryl Streep and her adult sister who’s struggled with mental health issues. But local organizations are also tackling these topics in video form. Carol Tiernan and Lisa Preney showed a 90-second video they produced entitled “Together We Can Build a Bridge.” See it here.

Creative people telling stories. That’s what it’s all about.

Find many more resources at the Federation's web site.

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