By Louise McDermott – Special to the American-Statesman ~ September 25, 2015

Joe&Louise2We consider ourselves incredibly fortunate to have the privilege of providing thousands of children with music and entertainment for more than 20 years. Our “work” most days involves the gift of engaging with children as they laugh, sing, dance and express themselves freely. There’s nothing quite as fulfilling as the experience of connecting with children in these moments of great joy.

However, for many families in the Austin area, the moments of joy are often clouded by the challenge of loving and caring for a child or teen with either behavioral or mental health disorders. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) approximately 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by 14; yet the average delay between onset of symptoms and receiving treatment is eight to 10 years. Like all illnesses, if left untreated these disorders can worsen and create obstacles to a child’s development and success.

Why the gap in receiving treatment? We would never think to wait eight to 10 years to treat diabetes, asthma or cancer. P but problematic behavior in children and teens is often blamed on parents, upbringing or environment. We ignore the signs and symptoms in hopes that it’s “just a phase” the child will outgrow. Making that first call for professional help can be challenging for parents because of the shame still associated with mental health disorders.

However, we can lighten the load for families in our community affected by mental illness by educating and supporting overwhelmed parents, schools and teens. The local affiliate, NAMI Austin, offers no-cost classes and support groups for parents, as well as school-based training for teachers and interactive presentations for teens. This type of programming creates the kind of understanding and empathy in which families can move out of the shame and toward healthy and successful lives.

One of the biggest challenges is the fear that we risk stigmatizing children when we diagnose them with mental health disorders. Yet, it’s estimated that almost 70 percent of the youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental health condition. Early intervention can lead to far better outcomes. Imagine the impact on our community if children and teens received adequate mental health diagnosis and care at onset of symptoms instead of eight to 10 years later?

With suicide being the third-leading cause of death in 10- to 24-year-olds, we also know that the price of losing our children is far too steep to let ourselves be held hostage by shame. As a community, we need to educate ourselves on the truth about mental illness and challenge ourselves to create communities in which families are enveloped by compassion, support and empathy.

We know education and support make a difference, so we are proud to be the honorary co-chairs of the 10th annual Austin NAMIWalks on Saturday. NAMI Austin is serious about combating stigma and shame through their free classes, support groups, training and resources available to anyone affected by mental illness.

Raising a child a with a mental illness can be exhausting and stressful; but like all illnesses, families can overcome these challenges when they have a community who brings over food, helps with errands and reminds them they are not alone. Moments of joy are fulfilling, but equally fulfilling is the experience of engaging with families and children and lifting them out of their isolation and shame and into moments of joy.

McDermott is a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Austin. Her husband, Joe McDermott, is a songwriter most noted for his funny-yet-poingnant music for families. The McDermotts are the 2015 Austin NAMIWalks Honorary Chairs.

 

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