Marian Archibald served as president of PCMH from 1995-2002. She was a board member of CMHO for 6 years and continues to serve on its Advocacy Committee. She is married to Jack Archibald, minister of St. Paul's, Ottawa.
A gifted seventeen year old, Amy is intelligent, insightful, creative, musical.1 But she is unwilling to be involved in the Christmas play or cantata. You think, "She won't participate because she's elitist."
Joel is an active energetic six year old. His mother is an elder and his father is a school principal. Every Sunday he squirms and talks through the service until mom or dad takes him out of the sanctuary. You think "How can competent parents have such an undisciplined child?
Sarah, age twelve, comes from a comfortable single-parent home which has afforded her many enriching experiences in the arts and athletics. Yet she remains distant, dissatisfied, melancholy, unmotivated. You think "Giving her everything has just made her moody."
Perhaps your thinking is correct. Many factors including parenting style and individual temperament can affect behaviour. But you may be in the dark, not seeing the whole picture. Let's shed some light on these young people.
Amy struggles with severe anxiety disorder which has eroded her confidence and caused social paranoia. She has been on a wait list for treatment for ten months and her condition has deteriorated.2
Joel has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). On week-ends he gets a break from medication which, while it enables him to more effectively manage his impulses, can impair physical growth.3 At times his parents are overwhelmed by the need 24/7 to implement his behaviour modification program.
Yes, Sarah is withdrawn and lethargic. Four years ago she was diagnosed with moderate-to-severe depression. She has tried several anti-depressants but side effects blurred her vision and dramatically lowered her blood pressure. Her physician is trying homeopathic remedies.
You think "These young people look like everyone else. Their behaviours don't merit any sympathy. How can such young people have mental health problems?"
According to the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 18% or almost one in five children and youth in Ontario has a diagnosable mental health disorder.4 These disorders may be acute or chronic, mild to severe, environmental or neurobiological in origin. These disorders appear in every economic, educational, ethnic and racial group. And yes, these disorders are present in our churches.
How do churches respond to these children? More importantly, how do we respond as individual Christians? No research has measured this response but I believe many in our pews are uncomfortable with people who are different. Some may arrive at uninformed opinions and some may be critical or judgmental of not only the child but the parents as well.
At one time I sat in that pew. Then, more than 20 years ago that one in five statistic became a reality for our family. So began our journey from darkness to light.
On this journey we have learned much about mental health disorders and related conditions. We have known the truth that such conditions affect every area of life: misunderstanding, tension and dysfunction inside and outside the family; frustration with road-blocks in the education system; physical illness caused by times of prolonged and extreme stress, to mention but a few.
Throughout this journey God has sustained and encouraged us by his Spirit and through his Word. A deeper understanding came from James 1:2-4. "Consider it pure joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (NIV). However, there were times when we would have gladly welcomed fewer trials, intermittent perseverance, and less maturity! Still we thank God for his faithfulness and praise him for every successful outcome on this journey.
But was there another purpose for this experience beyond the personal? Maybe to shed some light on children's mental health concerns…
In 1992 in Ontario (and across Canada) there was no parent organization to provide information and encouragement to parents raising children with a variety of mental health needs. Nor was there a consumer-driven association to advocate for children's mental health. I joined a committee which was exploring ways to start such a group. This work was nurtured by Children's Mental Health Ontario (CMHO), an Association of 85 member centres. In 2002 these centres served 150,000 children and their families across the province.
Parents for Children's Mental Health (PCMH) started in 1995. Much could be done to dispel the darkness and stigma historically associated with mental health disorders if parents could shed the mantle of shame and blame and through increased knowledge develop the confidence to speak out.
Many parents who together with their children have undergone difficult times and been through "the system" do not want to re-visit the experience. As a Christian I had a different perspective. I had met parents who were absorbed or overwhelmed, understandably, by circumstances and they were unable to advocate for appropriate and timely services. Now that our family could see light at the end of the tunnel I was able to help others through that tunnel. Other children deserved the treatment and support which had been of benefit to my child. For me, it was an issue of equality. To advocate for justice was an opportunity to put in to practice Micah 6:8. God requires me to act justly.
Since 1995 in all regions of Ontario parent advocates have spoken out in the interests of children's mental health at such venues as teacher professional development days, service groups, social service agency board meetings, community-wide forums, schools of medicine and social work, and in the media: print, radio and television. The provincial government now regards Parents for Children's Mental Health (PCMH) as a credible and valid voice for this sector. PCMH representatives have participated as stakeholders in many government initiatives which could impact children's mental health services or children with mental health disorders. These include: Ministry of Education revision of program and policy standards for special education as well as the definition of the Behaviour exceptionality, development of mitigating circumstances in the Safe Schools Act, presentations to the Ministry of Finance budget committee, and various components of an on-going review of the children's mental health service system.
Participating as a "lay person" on such committees can be intimidating, frustrating, and sometimes a source for righteous indignation. These committees have given me ample opportunity to be "quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry" (James 1:19, NIV). My preparation for a meeting whether it be with a Cabinet Minister, senior bureaucrat or local parent group has two essential parts. First, to be well-grounded with accurate information which is both broad-based and issue specific. (It helps to be a Presbyterian since in our denomination everything is done "decently and in order!") Second, to pray for divine guidance, wisdom and patience, trusting that God will use me in a way that will promote the good of others.
And there have been occasions when I have been able to share what it is that undergirds my efforts. During post-meeting analysis a parent will say that they could never be as calm, polite and knowledgeable. Then as a parent mentor I have shared my responsibility to be well-prepared and my dependence on God working in me and through me.
Changing decades of negative thinking and perhaps inadvertently short-sighted policies is slow and repetitive work. Perseverance is required if attitudes and policies are to be more enlightened.
By now you may be thinking "Well, good for her but that is not my family and that is not my experience. So why should I care?"
The Canadian Institute of Child Health says that emotional and behavioural problems have the greatest impact in reducing the life quality of Canadian children and youth.5 Surely each of us should want to diminish that impact and enhance the quality of life for these vulnerable children and youth.
After all, our Lord wants us to "be kind and compassionate to one another…" living as children of light (Eph.4:32 NIV). Remember these words the next time you see an Amy, Joel or Sarah.
- The names have been changed to protect their identities.
- Annual Resource Survey, CMHO 2002.
- Research in the last two decades confirms that ADHD (as well as Attention Deficit Disorder) is primarily a learning disorder and the new DSM V has reclassifies this condition.
- Canadian Journal of Psychiatry Fall 1999.
- Canadian Institute of Child Health 2000.