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Utah mom: Young kids need to learn about mental health

Published March 20, 2012 11:59 pm

Students typically don't learn about mental health until middle or high school, but by then teasing and ostracism may have already begun.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After Taylor Green was hospitalized in first grade for mania, he and his mother didn't know what to say to his friends.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the boy was struggling with his medications. He was out of control — running away from school and destroying his toys.

When he returned to school two months later, classmates spread rumors that he had been in jail.

It was then that Jamey Green knew she needed to help her son by educating his classmates about mental illness.

"We wanted to be able to talk about it but we didn't want them to be scared," Green recalled. "So we ended up not really saying much about it. That made me aware that we needed some education in the schools about this."

Three years later, she has pulled off what is considered a rarity: a week of mental illness education at the elementary school level, provided at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City, where Taylor is now in 4th grade. Usually, mental health isn't addressed until middle or high school.

But by that time, note parents of children with disorders, the teasing and ostracism has already begun.

Last week, teachers were trained about mental health issues, and parents were invited to a forum with a psychiatrist to learn about common disorders, such as depression, anxiety and autism.

Children made posters advertising the events with messages that included "It's not contagious," "fight the stigma" and "don't keep it a secret." They learned to write down their feelings and attended assemblies where they were taught that mental illnesses is like having asthma or diabetes.

Taylor, who also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety, sat in the front while his classmates heard this message:

"If you suffer from a mental illness like … ADHD or depression or anxiety, it's the same as any other illness. It's just going on in your brain," said Julie Schwartz, an educator with National Alliance on Mental Illness in Utah.

"It doesn't make them stupid or dumb. They're just the same as you or me."

'The chance to shine' •Taylor was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 6. It's unusual for a child so young to be identified. But the disorder, characterized by unusual shifts in energy and mood — from mania to depression — runs in his family.

Green's own experience led her to be open about it. The St. George native didn't know mental illness ran in her family and didn't seek help for her own downs and ups — she was a triple major in college — until she had more serious troubles. When Taylor started showing signs of anxiety early on, she sought help.

"I never want him to feel like there's anything wrong with him," said Green, 32. "He has a brain disorder but … he's not defective."

Taylor, who loves to fish trout in his backyard, described his disorder this way: "It's hard to sometimes think and do stuff. Like if you think about running then you sometimes get shy and don't do it. And playing with your friends, sometimes you get shy."

He said he's afraid to tell his friends about his disorder. "Sometimes then they don't want to be my friend."

Green said her son is very anxious at school, which can make him bossy and irritable. And he repeats the same question, which can put classmates off. He struggles in crowds and around new people.

"Trapped inside this mental prison is a sweet, smart, funny, loving little boy who doesn't always get the chance to shine or show his true personality," Green said in an email. "Can you imagine having to deal with all of this stress every day in your life?"

While his bipolar disorder is stable now, she says there is no guarantee that will continue. And because teens with the disorder have a higher risk of attempting suicide, she wants his classmates to be there to help him.

"I would like there to be understanding and a support group if there were some kind of fallout," she said. "In middle school, they end up teasing and not helping."

Taylor's older brother, Parker, 13, said knowing that Taylor has bipolar disorder makes it easier to be nice to him. His brother can become easily angry or sad. "It's really not his fault," he said. "I try to be nice to him whenever possible. Sometimes it's hard, but I try."

'They're good kids' • Green also organized the week to help other children who may be struggling and to help parents know what to look for. National statistics show 1 in 5 children will be diagnosed with a mental illness by the age of 18. Green knows of fellow parents who suspected their children had problems, but didn't know where to turn or whether they should discuss the problems with teachers.

Gayle Hadfield attended the parent meeting because her 8-year-old has ADHD, and his biological mother has bipolar disorder, so she knows it's a possibility for him. She said the event helped her find a support group for ADHD. And she liked the message the school was sending by hosting the events.

"We need to teach our young children. It's part of the world we live in," she said.

Sixth-grade teacher Diane Reese also applauded the week's emphasis. "There's a lot of kids who actually suffer from these, especially anxiety, ADHD. It's good to let the whole school know they're still normal. They're good kids."

She said she shared with her students that she had anxiety. It helps them see they're not alone — and that they can succeed, she said.

In an interview before the assembly, Taylor said he hoped the week would lead teachers to stop other kids from teasing him. And that classmates would treat him and others with mental illnesses better.

"They will learn maybe they should have done the right thing and still played with them."

Kids and mental health

Is there an issue related to children and mental health you'd like us to explore? Send your ideas to Heather May at hmay@sltrib.com.

To learn more

For information about National Alliance on Mental Illness in Utah, visit http://www.namiut.org/

Your turn • Kids and mental health

Is there an issue related to children and mental health you'd like us to explore? Send your ideas to Heather May at hmay@sltrib.com. —

To learn more

For information about National Alliance on Mental Illness in Utah, visit http://www.namiut.org