Actor, filmmaker and mental health advocate Misha Osherovich attended Island View — a former youth residential treatment center in Davis County — nearly a decade ago as a teenager.
About five years prior to their stay was the last time Utah passed laws aimed at regulating the treatment industry. But Osherovich and others say that wasn’t enough. They’re one of thousands of people — including several other Hollywood notables — who have spoken out against industry abuse in recent months. Osherovich is best known for their role in the movie ‘Freaky.’
The movement for industry reform reached new heights last week when a bill to bring tighter restrictions to the industry sailed through the Utah Senate, following emotional testimony from celebrity Paris Hilton and a representative of the advocacy group Breaking Code Silence. With the prospect of reform now on the horizon, Osherovich talked with KUER about the toll treatment programs took on their family and their advice to anyone looking to help a struggling teenager.
Listen to the KUER story
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
David Fuchs: As a teenager, you were in several facilities, including one in Utah. Why wait until your twenties to speak out?
Misha Osherovich: Part of the nature of these facilities is that you get bogged down by a good amount of shame, and that shame often keeps people silent for their whole lives, if not years and years. I guess the easiest answer is: I’m hoping that if I’m going to have any kind of real impact on the world as any kind of advocate or activist, I would be doing not just myself, but the folks I’m trying to help — teens, especially queer teens — a disservice if I wasn’t speaking about something that is so directly hurting young people.
DF: You have spoken out about other things that are hard, like eating disorders or recently coming out as non-binary. But I’m wondering, is there a different kind of challenge or cost when it comes to being open about this?
MO: There’s really no element of joy inside the troubled-teen industry, and certainly not [in] my experiences inside of it. That is the big difference here is that the catharsis isn’t really there because the said ‘boogeyman’ is really still over my shoulder. And I wish that I could proclaim how strong I am. But something that I’m dealing with on a minute-to-minute basis is how hard it is to speak about this particular subject. Many survivors, including myself, fear not being believed. And rightfully so, because why would society believe such outrageous stories? But the fact of the matter is they’re true.
DF: Your parents spent so much money sending you to these facilities. When did they decide it wasn’t worth it?
MO: The amount of money that my parents spent on these facilities is the biggest source of pain for both me and my family today. When they decided it wasn’t worth it was a very particular incident. It was toward the end of my time at a program on the East Coast. I was getting more and more outspoken about wanting to be out and gay. I was being ‘defiant’ as they put it.
My mother came to visit because the program director asked her to. He said to her that he was considering expelling me and sending me to an even more intense wilderness program back in Utah. My mom looked at him and told him that at this point, this man had hundreds of thousands of her dollars. She had spent all of her life savings — all of her retirement — on trying to get me better because that’s what she was told I needed by programs like his. So if he was going to expel her child because I was too gay for his taste and send me right back to the beginning, then this was not the place for her child. Because the fact of the matter is — she loves her child.
Right then and there, she stormed out. She took me aside and she said, ‘You are going to find a way to get out of this place and behave. I will find a way out of our contract with this school, and you are graduating from a normal high school.’ And from there, we were on the same team.
DF: You’ve talked about what was happening in your life when your parents sent you to Utah. It’s some pretty serious stuff: mental health issues, serious drug addiction, hospitalizations, and you got kicked out of two high schools. Looking back, what kind of help do you feel like you needed at the time?
MO: I needed a mental health care system that was ready to take me as I was and work with me to build a better me. None of that happened. Every step of the way, I was told that what I was doing was wrong and that I had to stop, freeze and completely obey in order to get better. That kind of clamp-down therapy and eventually abusive therapy when I came to Utah, I don’t think it ever works. Telling a teen that they’re wrong never works. Meeting them where they’re at and showing them a better path — as corny as that sounds — I believe that there’s pragmatic ways to do it. And that’s what I needed.
DF: What would you say to parents who just want to help their kids and maybe feel like they don’t have any other options besides a youth residential treatment facility?
MO: I would first say to them that I know it’s hard. Having been that child that exhausted seemingly every option when it came to my parents helping me not just get better, but literally survive. Please take a beat and obviously do your research. But most of these programs have incredibly skilled marketing teams that fool even the smartest of people. My parents are some of the smartest people I know. And they were absolutely fooled.
Find treatment, if you’re able to, that is home-centered or near home-centered. Work with trusted, accredited doctors. I would ideally say, work inside of large, well-respected medical institutions, and really try to kind of figure it out from there. I wish — I really wish — that I had a better catch-all answer. I will say that your child is capable of much more than you are probably giving them credit for. And while self-destructive behaviors are incredibly scary, they are able to be treated with therapy that centered around compassion. I strongly believe that.
Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune and KUER are collaborating on a reporting project about Utah’s youth residential treatment centers.