Youth, parents share stories of struggle, support for Children’s Mental Health Week

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, with the first week devoted specifically to Children’s Mental Health Awareness. The following article from Department of Mental Health Commissioner Joan Mikula highlights the struggles and successes of youth and parents who have agreed to tell their stories and includes information about community services and organizations available to families in need.

One in five people in Massachusetts struggle with mental illness. These numbers include an often-overlooked population: children.

Half of all mental health conditions are diagnosed before a person’s 14th birthday, and 75% of all mental illnesses are identified by age 24.

Access to services and supports are vitally important for children with mental illness, and their parents and caregivers who support them. Positive mental health is critical to healthy child development. There is a network of state and local programs, which includes partnerships with groups like the Parent/Professional Advocacy League, PPAL, that help parents navigate the stresses and complexities of caring for children who are struggling.

For Nicole Desnoyes, of Springfield, it is persistence and a network of support that have brought hope to her family and 10-year-old son.

“I always knew he needed a little extra,” said Desnoyes. They used many community-based services with limited success for several years and were caught in a cycle of trying new services while hoping for a better result.

“He would escalate quickly and become violent. Many times, I had to call the police for an escort to the hospital. There were times when I was calling the Behavioral Health Network crisis line three times a week.”

Nicole’s son was matched with after-school support which, she said, was a key step in getting him the long-term services that are finally having an impact. Since November, he has been in an Intensive Residential Treatment Program in Springfield and is making real progress. Before COVID-19, the family was able to visit a lot and attended family counseling sessions. Those things are now done via phone and Skype.

Nicole credits the support and help of a caseworker and PPAL, for connecting her with support groups and other resources. She is now serving as the co-chairwoman of Springfield Special Education Parents Advisory Council, SEPAC. Through SEPAC, Nicole meets with families and the local school committee and helps navigate the educational challenges they face.

“Navigating the system can be difficult,” said Desnoyes. “And sometimes that varies according to where you are.... I always tell people, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t let the brick wall stop you.’ When I hit a brick wall, I just try another avenue.”

Josh Powers, 27, of Methuen, also credits PPAL for bolstering him at a critical time. About six years ago, after noticing the Zakim Bridge lit in blue, he made it his mission to have the Zakim go green during the first week of May to bear the color of Children’s Mental Health Awareness. Like so many young people, Josh has struggled and was diagnosed with serious mental health issues, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. His greater mission remains reducing the stigma often associated with mental illness.

“For a lot of kids who have mental health issues, it’s upsetting. It’s very hard,” said Powers. “I felt like, if I could get the Zakim Bridge lit up, it would show people. That was me showing everybody it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Everybody has their rough times.”

Not only has Josh gotten the Zakim Bridge lit every year since but this year, the Burns Bridge on the Worcester/Shrewsbury line, the Government Center MBTA stop in Boston, and 11 other locations across the state were scheduled be green for either Wednesday, May 6, or for the duration of Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week.

Additional family supports are available through local and national groups and agencies that serve Massachusetts families. These groups include the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Children’s Mental Health Campaign (CMHC), the Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN), Express Yourself (EXYO), Family Resource Centers (FRCMA) and Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network (CPLAN).