Author: Karen Copeland
What is it like when your child is struggling? Where do you go? How do you learn what you need to do to support your child? Who supports you? (Update: I’ve created a tip sheet for you! What To Do If You are Concerned About Your Child)
On Wednesday morning, the BC Government unveiled a new interactive provincial map that people can access online to find child and youth mental health and substance use services in their community. You can find it here. You can also read a media report here.
Later that morning, Simi Sara from CKNW was interviewing Mary Ellen Turpel Lafonde, the Representative for Children and Youth.
If you follow my blog or know me in person, you know I am not afraid to speak up. So, this happened on twitter.
MLA Stephanie Cadieux, the Minister for Children and Families must have taken up my offer for her to read my story, because she contacted me and let me know that she would like to meet. I am looking forward to that meeting. In case you are new to my blog, you can read parts of my story here: I am ‘that’ Parent.
Thinking I had accomplished enough for the day, I spent a lazy evening chatting with my husband. And then my message notifier dinged on my phone. I read the email title “CKNW Simi Sara Show Request”.
It didn’t take me too long to decide that I would do the segment, and I spent some time writing notes and clarifying my thoughts. What were my key messages I wanted to share with Simi and the audience? I didn’t sleep much that night.
If you would like to listen to the segment, you can do so here.
So let me be very clear here. I am in agreement with and support the interactive navigation map. I’m not sure why anyone would think otherwise, but I’m just putting it out there! Giving families another tool, another way to find out where to go for help is always good!
My only concern with the map is how it is going to be found by families. Particularly by families who know that something is going on for their child, but have no idea what that might be! This was our own family situation. I knew that something was going on, but never would I have pinpointed “anxiety” or even “mental health” to be the issue. So, if this were our situation today and we were just starting out on this journey, I still wouldn’t have known to type “mental health children” into the google toolbar. When I google searched so many years ago, I think my search terms were “parent advocacy support” or something like that. It really was by luck that I came across the organization that I did.
One of the points that I tried to be very clear about yesterday is that we have many children under the age of twelve who are experiencing mental health challenges. The numbers are increasing – ask any elementary school teacher. In particular, there has been an increase in the number of children who are experiencing anxiety and social emotional challenges. But we (parents or teachers or both!) might not recognize it as anxiety. We might see a child who is having a hard time interacting with her peers but seems to be doing okay academically. We might see a child who has refuses to complete his school work because he is terrified of making a mistake, but we see this as “not trying hard enough”.
In our adult world, it is really easy to assign a reason for why a particular behavior is occurring without looking deeper. It’s just what we do! When a child is “acting out”, we don’t automatically jump to the assumption that perhaps they might be experiencing a mental health challenge like anxiety. Ask yourself what your first thought is when you see a child on a playground having an outburst. And I challenge you to be honest with your thoughts.
Disclaimer: This does not mean that I think all children who act out behaviorally have a mental health challenge! But I do think we owe it to that child to try and figure out WHY and WHAT they are trying to tell us with their behavior!
So what happens when you do finally figure out that your child might be experiencing a mental health challenge and you go to access services?
Our family was pretty fortunate. We came into the system at a time where clinicians (counsellors) were not as overloaded as they are now. I had to do a phone interview with a clinician from Child and Youth Mental Health. Do you know how hard it is to develop a rapport with someone over the phone? and you are supposed to trust this person on the other end of the line with detailed information about the challenges your child is facing?
Here is where I think the new intake process of a face to face meeting is beneficial. While it may not result in access to services, it certainly is more humanizing!
We were placed on a waiting list to access an anxiety group. I believe we waited around six to eight months. We were also fortunate to get assigned a clinician who would work with our son individually. This is much less likely to happen now as the demand for support far outweighs the capacity of the people within the system who provide it. Now remember, even with the announcement of the interactive map and the new intake process, there was no new money put into these services, thus no real improvement to timely access to services.
Often, the first line of treatment is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). It is evidence based and has proven to make a difference in reducing anxious thoughts. Our child was not ready for CBT, nor was he ready for sitting and sharing his thoughts in a private office with a stranger. He was 7 years old at the time.
We pursued assessments and different types of therapy like social skills groups and occupational therapy (paid out of pocket of course). As time went on, it became very clear to us that having a positive, trusting adult relationship was critical in any kind of therapy or approach being taken with our son. Our clinician tried very hard to develop this relationship with our son, unfortunately it just did not work. I do applaud her for not giving up on him, and for never giving up on our family – I consider her to be one of our champions on this journey.
I started to become curious about other families who had kids between the ages of six and twelve, and what their experiences were like. I connected with several families, and put forward an idea for a research study to the University of the Fraser Valley Faculty of Social Work program. Natalie Ackermann picked up the project, and I wrote about her findings in these posts: Why Parent Engagement? and Why Parent Engagement? Part 2.
My question and my challenge is, at what point do we start to look at things differently and recognize that what we are providing is not necessarily working for families? and how do you find out if the service you are providing IS meeting the needs of families? and when families do speak, do we have the courage to listen?
In the segment, I mentioned that many communities have Child and Youth Committees, where the various service providers come together to discuss how they are supporting children, youth and families in their community. If you are a service provider that sits on one of these committees, ask yourself how you might be able to include parents and youth in your community in your conversations. Find out what it is that families in your communities need, and then find a way to make it happen! Simply saying “we can’t do anything to help” is no longer acceptable, in my opinion. Even if you take a small piece of what families are saying they need and make it happen, you are making a difference!
While I believe family and youth engagement in systems is critical, I also believe we need to start having more conversations within our communities to raise awareness of how mental health challenges can and do impact our children, youth and families. Does that start with the language we use to try and pull the general public in? If we say “anxiety” will people relate? What if we ask the question “are you concerned about your child’s behavior?” Once we get people in the door, then we have an opportunity to introduce mental health terminology.
I don’t proclaim to speak on behalf of all families who have children with mental health challenges, nor would I ever want to. I share my experiences because, as I said to Simi yesterday, I think there are many families out there who want to share their own stories, the space to do so has just not been created for them yet. When we do share our stories, we put not only ourselves, but our children in incredibly vulnerable situations. It is a challenge for me to figure out how much to share without compromising my son’s right to privacy. I won’t pretend that I always get it right, but I am very mindful of this. So, if you do happen to have a family share their story with you, please respect that vulnerability and that privacy, and honor that story by reflecting on your own biases and perceptions.
At the end of the segment, Simi asked me what I would like to say to families. If I could go back in time, I would say this:
“Don’t lose hope. Find your champions on this journey – the people who believe in you and believe in your child. Our champions are the ones who throw us a lifeline when we need it most. For community members, ask yourself how you might become a champion for a family in your community. When we come from a place of understanding and awareness, we are going to do better for our children, youth and families.”
I would like to thank Simi Sara and CKNW for offering me the opportunity to share pieces of our family journey yesterday. I hope it will encourage more families to speak out, but also encourage everyone else to listen when they do!
Read about my meeting with the Minister of Child and Family Development, Stephanie Cadieux here: Meeting the Minister
Join Champions on Facebook: Champions For Community Mental Wellness