Brand building through storytelling

The new crisis in children’s mental health

I’m thinking today of a preteen boy in Windsor, Ontario, the auto town just across the river from Detroit. I don’t even know his age, let alone his name, his favourite sports team, what kind of music excites him or whether he’s ever loved a dog. But I know something intimate about this boy. I know what he fears. When both his parents lost their jobs in the auto industry, he worried that they couldn’t afford to raise him. So he tried to take his life.

I’ve just read about this boy in today’s Globe and Mail. “Recession taking toll on the young,” the headline said. The story focused on Windsor, where the unemployment rate nudged 14 percent last month, compared to a national average of 8 percent. In Windsor caseloads at agencies that counsel troubled children have doubled or almost tripled since last year. Formerly cheerful kids are acting out or showing signs of anxiety. Kids who were struggling before now find the going even tougher. What’s happening to Windsor’s children is happening to some degree wherever jobs are disappearing. Yet there’s no new funding for children’s mental health.

I’ve grown accustomed, if by no means resigned, to the trivializing, stigmatizing and underfunding of mental health issues. Just last year, a Canadian Medical Association survey found that nearly half of us believe a diagnosis of mental illness is only an excuse for bad behaviour. Even so, it shocks me to see children’s mental illness go ignored. I’d like to think that attitudes have changed since I was a depressed nine-year-old contemplating questions like “Why am I living?” and “Do I deserve to be here?” I never breathed a word of this to my parents; they had enough problems of their own. Like well-meaning parents the world over, they thought of themselves as my protectors. They had no idea that it worked both ways—that I was protecting them from the guilt-inducing shame of my constant sorrow. When I read about the suicidal boy in Windsor, I sensed the painfully misplaced gallantry of his own protective streak.

I logged onto the Globe‘s website to see what other readers were thinking. I hoped to find a community of caring. What I found instead was a finger-pointing debate about whether children’s mental illness is for real. Some people blamed the parents for supposedly abusing the kids. Others blamed the kids for their presumed insatiable greed. (“What, is Junior sad because he won’t get the latest xbox game for Christmas or Sally is feeling a little blue because there is no a new pair of Uggs for her birthday? Suck it up buttercups!”) A third group insisted that the kids would be perfectly fine if we just brought back that old time religion and cracked down on nose rings.

The comments got me thinking of a friend whose daughter has a life-threatening eating disorder. My friend’s family used to live in the Bible Belt, where a classmate told her daughter that she didn’t need therapy—only prayer could heal this punishment from God. Then I thought of a colleague whose apparently happy, confident son killed himself without warning.

I remembered the words of Maurice Sendak, who has both the courage and the genius to illuminate childhood’s darkest, most neglected corners in his best-selling picture books. Admitting that his children look “old before their time…as if they’ve been hit on the head,” Sendak says, “children know and suffer a great deal….Being defenseless is a primary element of childhood.”

On the physical level, responsible grownups understand this. We belt our kids into the approved car seat, we make them wear helmets while biking, we scrutinize food labels for allergens. We quake at the thought of a child walking home alone from school. It’s time to be just as vigilant about the other threats to children’s future, the ones we don’t want to see or name.

Click here to read a related post on the death of 15-year-old Brandon Crisp after a confrontation with his family, and here for “A suicide in the family: the death of Nicholas Hughes.”


Posted by Rona

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