Wednesday, June 8, 2016

WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS: Our Children's Mental Health

“The purpose of our existence is to seek happiness.” 
                                                           --Dalai Lama

“Love life.”  Those were the only words on a sign carried by a friend, Steve Fugate, on his 34,000 mile journeys around the United States.  Steve has lost both of his children.  His response to this horrible loss was to walk around the country-several times.  His precious children are both gone.  But this man fiercely loves life and by sharing his story, he teaches others how to love life.

Image result for steve fugate

In my work with people struggling from a lifetime of living with mental health issues, I often meet families who struggle because a child has a mental illness.  Some parents will do anything for their child and others decide that doing nothing and walking away is the best they can do.

Some conditions, such as bipolar, emerge in children when they are in their late teens and early twenties.  Learning disabilities are rampant among those I serve.  As someone who has always loved to read (I drove baby sitters crazy reading by flashlight under my covers late at night), it is heartbreaking to work with individuals with dyslexia who have never known what it is like to spend a Sunday lost in a good book. 

I want to introduce you to two people I have met in my journeys working with people with disabilities:

Alex, a wonderfully smart man who did not learn to read until he was 18. He is bipolar and has dyslexia.  No one noticed him struggling to read until he had lost his youth.  He shared that he tried to commit suicide several times because he knew he was different but did not know why.  He has spent a lifetime of regret wondering what would be different is someone had noticed his disability earlier and intervened sooner. 

Roger, a caring man who has never been able to keep a job more than a few months because of his disabilities until now because he is getting the supports he needs.  He has bipolar, learning disabilities, and barely reads, with no ability to understand numbers.  He struggles every day of his life with things most people take for granted.  He shared with me that when he was in public school, teachers knew he could not read or do math but they passed him from one grade to another anyway.  He said he felt ashamed to ask for help because he was the child and all the adults in his life just turned away and looked the other way.

Who are we as a country if we cannot recognize when a child is struggling with school work or missing school for unexplained reasons?  What kind of country are we that we allow children who through no fault of their own have dyslexia, learning disabilities, depression or attention deficit disorder to not be properly diagnosed and effectively treated? It takes a village to grow healthy children. 

Just as all children deserve access to healthy foods and time outside in nature, all children deserve access to mental health services and all children deserve happiness.  A young man called me this week to say that when he went to his first appointment for mental health care he was told that his copays were $40/visit, beyond his means.  Why should taking care of bipolar or social anxiety disorder cost more than a well child visit? 

We can do better.  Learn about the mental health resources in your community.  We are the village.  Help a child.  Listen.  As Steve Fugate knows too well, kids are really good at holding in their feelings.  Often we find out something is wrong when it is too late.  

Be the change you want to see in the world.  These are our children. Their mental health is directly related to the health of our communities.

For more information about mental health, please visit the National Institute of Mental Health website at

In gratitude,
Nancy Heinrich

Founder, Growing Healthy Kids, Inc.