Wendy s Story
"My name is Wendy Ward and I’m the co-founder of the Youth Mental Health Project.
I believe that we all have mental health – the same way we all have physical health. My story is one of the consequences of an overlooked mental health diagnosis. My experience with the mental health conditions started with an unexpected and unwelcome surprise.
One day, I think I was about 13, I came home from middle school to a mysterious box sitting in our family’s front hallway. I helped myself to a 'nosey teenage peek'. It was filled with letters and pictures that smelled old, but were seemingly nothing of value. On top of the pile was an old photo of a young woman who I didn’t know.
When my Mom got home, I asked her who the woman was and whose box it was.
'Oh… [awkward pause] that’s your grandmother.'
'But I already have a grandmother.'
'Grandma Bunny is actually your step grandmother – your grandfather’s wife - but not Dad’s mother. This is a picture is of your father’s mother.'
That was the moment I learned my dad’s mother suffered from schizophrenia and had lived most of her adult life in a psychiatric hospital. But, we never talked about it.
Fast forward a decade and a half, and I am married to my husband, raising our two very young daughters and his 10-year-old son from a previous marriage. From a very young age, my stepson dealt with numerous behavioral and emotional issues. He had a lot of anxiety, was easily distracted, and nothing excited him. It showed up in school, in his social life, at home, and in sports.
We struggled with his lack of motivation and his strong desire to quit everything. He was behind scholastically, he had a stutter, and he couldn’t stick with activities- a combination of warning signs, I know now, of a mental health condition. His parents’ divorce, people thought, was causing his stress, and the school and his first psychiatric evaluation told us it was actually our fault. Still, we wanted to support him.
'Low motivation' was the assessment, and 'positive reinforcement' was the treatment.
'Use a sticker chart,' his therapist said. We reached out to the school about his reading issues – 'Sit with him and do his reading each night together', they suggested. We reached out to the pediatrician. 'Be patient' he advised. When binge eating arose as an issue for him, we branched out to a nutritionist. 'Practice mindfulness' the nutritionist suggested. While these tactics can be really helpful for many children, for us, they were like treating a ruptured appendix with a Band-Aid.
Enormous amounts of time and energy got us nowhere. We were like hamsters on a wheel – exhausted, but no better off. We just couldn’t fix the issues. Sometime during this cycle of ineffective behavior management, incomplete diagnosis, and nonexistent treatment, my 11-year-old stepson acted out in a previously unimaginable way, that permanently affected our entire family. As a result of being mentally ill, he made a series of extremely poor decisions that could never be undone, entangling us in the juvenile justice system.
When one child is ill, the whole family suffers the results. Looking back, it's easy to identify that there was suffering. But, as the parents and the adults, we didn’t have the vocabulary, the confidence, or the support system in place to identify the signs early on, and to effectively advocate for the right kind of assistance.
Someone once told me that 'Hurt kids, hurt kids.' Themselves or others. I’m determined to break that cycle, so that other families do not have to suffer as we did. We now know that my stepson became severely disassociated due to anxiety, depression, and dysthymia- a diagnosis that was too easily overlooked. Yet, his evaluation from preschool read like a foreign language, and it is clear now that we did not understand what was being said to us, so it went unrecognized for eight more years.
When your son has a fever or a rash, you intuitively know the difference between 'normal' and 'abnormal,' and even if you don’t know the cause of the rash, you treat it. The consequences of untreated mental health conditions can be devastating.
Until we, as individuals and as a society, decide that we will no longer live in denial and shame when we recognize that the children we love are exhibiting the warning signs of mental health conditions, hurt kids will continue to hurt kids, whether it be themselves or others.
I have learned it is okay to have emotions. It is only when feelings come out from inside of us and see the light of day through empathic dialogue, that hurt or anger can be processed, understood, and set free. Moreover they keep us from living an 'ill' life. Stories like mine don’t have to end sadly. We all have physical health, yes. and, we all have mental health too."