When Kids with Mental Illness Can’t Live at Home

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By Kelly BurchThe Washington Post

February 14, 2017

This article has been re-shared from it’s original source, The Washington Post

Many of Christine Walker’s friends are just starting to help their teenage children plan to leave home, whether for a job, college or a gap year. But Walker’s 16-year-old son Schuyler has already lived away from his family for seven years, spending nearly half his life in residential treatment programs and schools for children with severe mental illness.

“When Schuyler was 7, that was when I had tried absolutely everything — every pill, every doctor, every diet, every therapy, everything — and we were still at a point when home was unsafe,” says Walker, who lives in Winnetka. “I realized then that everything we had been trying to do wasn’t enough.”

Walker and her husband knew that the only way to meet Schuyler’s needs and protect their two younger kids was to have their oldest child live elsewhere. However, it took two years to finally act on that decision.

“It’s a last resort, but we had to check into that resort, because we’d done everything else,” Walker recalls.

Although it is rarely talked about, the Walkers’ experience is not uncommon. In 2015, 271,000 children ages 12 to 17 received care for mental illness at a residential treatment facility. Half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14, and 13 percent of American children ages 8 to 15 will experience a severe mental disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. More children in this country have a psychiatric disorder than have cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined, and for the most severely affected, residential treatment is the best way to ensure their safety and help them stay out of the juvenile justice system.

However, families that send their child to residential treatment programs often face judgment and misunderstanding. Mental illness, which is often treated as a taboo topic, is even more stigmatized in its youngest victims.

“If Schuyler had cancer, I would never think of myself as a failure if I didn’t do chemo in my living room,” says Walker, whose son is on the autism spectrum and has a mood disorder. “I would never think of myself as giving up. This is a brain disorder.”

Doctors are sometimes hesitant to diagnose psychiatric disorders in children, and school systems and law enforcement are ill-equipped to handle the needs of children who can be violent and unpredictable. Too often, these systems look to the parents to explain children’s behaviors.

 

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