Reaching out to kids with difficulties

Schools offer help to parents in dealing with their children


As Rogenia Burton-Pendergast's 13-year-old son Reginald has grown, his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has become more and more of an issue at school.

She has met with administrators and other staff at Patuxent Valley Middle School, and while they have been helpful, there has been a constant struggle with one of Reginald's teachers.

"The teacher is not being proactive," Burton-Pendergast explained. "He's a bright kid. He's very good in math and science. Unfortunately, not all teachers are willing to work with students with disabilities."

Burton-Pendergast was frustrated and looking for answers. She found some Wednesday evening at the 90-minute session, "Finding Help for Your Child When Troubling Behaviors Get Out of Control."

The meeting, which was sponsored by the Howard County schools' Office of Student Services and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, equipped participants with some of the behaviors associated with mental illness and some of the resources available to help affected children.

Participants learned that a number of influential people, including Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton and Charles Dickens, suffered from mental illness. They also learned about a support group that meets monthly in Howard County.

"They really care," Burton-Pendergast said about NAMI, a grass-roots, nonprofit organization that has more than 200,000 members nationally. "I've never been in this type of situation before. I'm very worried and concerned."

Recognizing mental illness and being proactive about treatment is essential, according to Susan Helsel, executive director of NAMI-Howard County.

"There will be good periods, there will be bad periods," Helsel said. "There will be more good periods if you seek treatment."

If not properly diagnosed and left untreated, mental illness can have dangerous consequences, Helsel said.

Ninety percent of children who commit suicide have an active mental illness at their time of death, according to Helsel.

"The longer the child goes without treatment, the more serious the consequences," said Helsel, who added that 12 percent of all children are born with neurobiological brain diseases, and 80 percent of these children do not get treatment.

Helsel said that mental illness in children can often be confused with a developmental phase or simple misbehavior.

"Most families don't understand mental illness. We're trying to raise your awareness about behaviors that might be chemical imbalances in children," Helsel told participants.

She went on to dispel a slew of misconceptions.

"It's a myth that a kid will commit suicide because of a bad grade or breaking up with his girlfriend," she said. "These are triggers. Many times this is the last step."

Helsel also said that mental illness presents itself differently in adults. "Usually, a child who is depressed is not sitting around doing nothing. They are usually acting out and being a bully."

Although Helsel said that mental illnesses are not caused by poor parenting, bad teachers, neighbors or friends, Helsel said, establishing good two-way communication with schools is an essential part of dealing with a child's illness.

"It's your responsibility to seek help," said Helsel, who added that 50 percent of children with serious emotional disturbances drop out of school.

Pam Blackwell, director of student services, said one of her goals is to improve the communication between parents and schools.

"The issue is that classroom teachers have not been trained to recognize the difference between general behavior problems and mental illness," said Blackwell, who added that Helsel presented a similar workshop during a staff development day for system employees in March.

Helsel was assisted by other parents of children with mental illnesses Wednesday night.

Jack Monahan, vice president of the Howard County Mental Health Authority board of directors and a support group leader with NAMI, warned parents of difficulties associated with raising a child with a mental illness.

"Family life with mental illness is not fun," said Monahan, who shared the struggles of raising his own son, who is now 31, employed and living on his own. "It's a virtual stew of emotions."

Rita Daugherty, who has started a support group for parents of children with mental illnesses in Howard County, has gone through a roller coaster of emotions while dealing with her 15-year-old son's dual diagnosis of bipolar disorder and ADHD. Daugherty's group, which is sponsored by NAMI, meets once a month at the Faulkner Ridge Center.

"Two months ago, I was in Hurricane Rita," Daugherty said, referring to a rough patch of time with her son. "Now things are good."

Daugherty said it is important that parents not blame themselves for their child's illness.

"I feel I am a good person," Daugherty said. "I have a good child."

NAMI-Howard County can be reached at 410-772-9300. The Howard County Schools' Office of Student Services can be reached at 410-313-6662.

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