HOUSTON – Mental health continues to be a topic of conversation after the deadly Florida school shooting, sparking conversation about barriers to getting children with mental illnesses the help they need. Mental health professionals and parents believe a more integrated approach to care is necessary to treating mental illness effectively. Meanwhile, mental health professionals attempt to bust myths regarding mental illness and violence.
Laura Medel is a mother who experiences the effects of the broken mental health system firsthand. Her son, 13-year-old Julien Guillen, has a more severe case of mental illness and has had these conditions since he was very young.
"He started developing symptoms of ADHD when he was in the first grade," Medel said.
Medel went through phases of denial, telling herself that her son would grow out of his tendencies to behave badly, and she continued to leave it untreated, but soon it was unavoidable.
“The teachers all the time would call me saying, ‘Julien isn’t doing his work. Julien is off task. Julien is not following directions,’” Medel said.
Medel said her son was also bullied for what he wore, how he acted and the things he said. His mother said it made his conditions worse. Julien wouldn’t get along with children.
“In the sixth grade it was depression, it was mood disorder -- he was very moody, isolated and then he would say things like, ‘I’m going to hang myself,’ or ‘I'm going to cut myself,’" Medel said.
Always being called to school and dealing with outbursts of rebellion, the single mother didn’t know what to do. His teachers would turn him away. After the typical cycle of guilt in these kinds of situations, Medel realized it wasn’t her fault. Her son was eventually diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), a physiological change in the brain that results in irratic, rebellious and defiant behavior. It was clear to Medel that teachers did not quite understand what her son was going through or that it was a type of mental illness that needed treatment—something Julien could not control.
"The teachers (would say), ‘He's just a bad kid,’" Medel said.
Darlene Nickerson, whose 12-year-old son has ADHD and bipolar disorder, she experienced something similar.
"The school system is not where I would want it to be in terms of understanding because some of the teachers just don’t know, and I don’t think it’s fair for a kid that’s going through mental issues," Nickerson said.
Her son would be kicked out of class and face other punishment all while Nickerson said, the cause was his disorder. It is a lack of understanding and integrative care that the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Greater Houston said is a major barrier to getting children with mental illnesses the care they need.
"We separate the mind from the body -- and we forget that the brain is an organ too -- and it's no difference from your heart or your lungs,” said executive director Glenn Urbach. “The symptoms of mental illness is usually seen in behaviors. All we do is focus on the symptoms -- not the treatment of the symptoms."
That’s why Urbach said it is critical for those who deal with children, to be educated about mental health and the nature of mental illnesses.
“Twenty-five percent of the population live with mental health challenges. When do those mental health challenges develop? Half of them will develop by the time that person’s 14 years old. Seventy-five percent of the mental health challenges will happen when they are 24 years old,” Urbach said.
NAMI Greater Houston offers classes called NAMI Basics for parents and anyone in the community who are looking to be educated about mental health. It is a six-session course for parents and family caregivers of youth experiencing symptoms of mental health illness. It provides families the information they need to support their children and creates a sense of community.
Another program called Parents and Teachers as Allies which helps both groups recognize early-onset mental illness in children and adolescents. The program gives school personnel information on mental health conditions and how to help students succeed, teach teachers the warning signs and respond effectively and share personal stories of parents and young adults with mental health conditions.
The goal is to overcome a major barrier – lack of integrative mental health care.
"You have your home life. You have the 15 minutes you spend in the therapeutic office, and then you have most of the child's life spent at school, but all three of those areas do not have the same level of support or treatment for their child," said NAMI Greater Houston’s program director Angelina Hudson who also has children with mental health illnesses.
Other barriers to health are more systemic. Greater Houston does not have residential treatment centers for those with mental illnesses, according to NAMI. Medel drives 2.5 hours near Austin to visit her son who is getting treatment at a residential treatment facility there.
“He is much better there,” said Medel. “However, me and his other relatives have to switch off visiting him every other weekend.”
Another major barrier is the stigma of mental health.
While roughly one in four people have a mental illness in the United States, only 3-5 percent of those with mental illnesses turn to violence, according to NAMI.
While watching news of the Florida school shooting, Dickerson couldn’t help but wonder.
"Would my child be capable of something like that?" Dickerson said.
She’d later realize that is a myth.
"Studies have shown over and over again—those with mental illnesses are much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence because we don't understand mental challenges," said Urbach.
Saturday, NAMI is hosting a walk to raise awareness on mental health. The NAMIwalks Greater Houston is by far the largest mental health Walk in Texas. It will be held at Sam Houston Park at 8 a.m. Click here for more information.