Hold On, It's Not Over

A Blog about Children's Mental Health in Massachusetts

My top stories on children’s mental health in 2010 — what are yours?

We are all looking forward to 2011, making our resolutions and hoping, as we always do, for a better year. The end of the year is also the time when we look back before we look forward. There were many events in 2010 which will impact all of us who parent children with mental health needs or work with them and their families. Here are my picks for the top stories. What are yours?

#1. The health care reform law passed and began to offer protections for consumers across the country and the promise of coverage to the uninsured. The passage of the Affordable Care Act was signed into law by President Obama in March and some portions of the new law are already in effect including that young adults can remain on their parents’ insurance plans. The law requires mental health to be covered and people cannot be turned away or dropped from coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Although Massachusetts has had health care reform since 2006, many families have insurance that is solely regulated by federal law and this will change things for the better for them.

#2. Federal mental health parity was an under-the-radar story which will also have a major impact. The new federal mental health parity law, enacted in 2008, went into effect in 2010. For the first time, mental illness must be treated by insurance companies in the same way as other chronic conditions, like diabetes and hypertension. Parity is incredibly important to those affected by mental health condiditons, yet it was not widely noted while health care reform was debated. Again, while Massachusetts has had a mental health parity law, many families will only see changes under federal parity.

#3. Following an outbreak of LGBT teen suicides across the country , columnist Dan Savage launched the “It Gets Better” campaign in September, which lets gay teens know that if they hang in there, life will improve after high school. It’s a brilliant campaign and thousands of people (both celebrities and regular people) have posted personal stories on YouTube in an effort to offer hope to countless LGBT youth worldwide and shine a spotlight on the harm caused by bullies. LGBT youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers according to the 2006 Massachusetts youth risk survey.

#4. The bullying and subsequent suicide of Phoebe Prince in January went from a local tragedy to an international media storm about bullying in schools. The tragedy of her death came just months after the suicide of 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover of Springfield and galvanized advocates, lawmakers and the media to advocate for change. In April, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a new law mandating that every school system in the Commonwealth come up with a plan by the end of the year for dealing with bullying issues.

#5. Another local event which captured national media attention was the trial and conviction of Rebecca Riley‘s mother (in January) and father (in September). Rebecca Riley was found dead on the floor of her home in 2006 from the combined effects of Clonidine, Depakote and other medications. Each of her parents was found guilty of murder. Many national and local reporters wrote and narrated stories that doubted the existence of mental health issues in very young children as well as the use of medication. Unsurprisingly, a complicated situation was pared down to a discussion of mental health, medication and young children.

#6. One of the most important stories of 2010 never got media coverage. The first full year of the implementation of Children’s Behavioral Health Intiative, although imperfect, continues to provide Massachusetts families with home and community based services on a previously unheard of scale. Nearly 70% of children and teens are receiving behavioral health screens at well-child visits, and almost 6500 children and youth have received care coordination with nearly 19,000 experiencing at least one of the new remedy services. Families report that they feel they are considered a partner in their child’s treatment and are particularly satisfied with the services provided by a family partner. What is striking is that while other states have created similar services, none has done it on such a scale. CBHI is available across the state to children with signicant mental health needs on MassHealth.

#7. In October, the Boston Globe reported that many children are deemed "too acute" by some hospitals when asked to consider an admission. Children and teens who are violent, hallucinate or have complicated psychiatric histories are most likely to be turned away. Just last week I heard a story of a teen waiting in an emergency room after being turned away from hospitals in Massaachusetts and two other states. Sounds like a story we’ll hear more of in 2011.

These are my top stories. Did I miss any or are there any that should not have made the list?

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January 1, 2011 Posted by | children's mental health | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Nowhere to turn


Christopher Anselmo is a guest blogger for Hold On, It’s Not Over. Chris is a PAL staff member and loves to write.

The tragic circumstances of Phoebe Prince’s suicide continue to unravel by the day. Rarely have the details of one particular case of bullying and suicide been in the public spotlight like Phoebe’s. Lisa and I have discussed the story on more than one occasion, and are shocked by its depravity, which has caught the attention of the entire nation.

The details that have emerged regarding the nature of the harassment that Phoebe had to endure on a daily basis are nothing short of disgusting. Her life was made a living hell by a group of teens that would stop at nothing to make sure that she was as miserable as possible during her every waking moment. Even worse, her school, which should have intervened and dealt with the situation promptly, turned the other cheek in her darkest hour, denying her the lifeline she desperately needed.

Depression stemming from incessant bullying is an aspect of children’s mental health that is imperative to address. Hopefully, Phoebe’s story can be an example for other schools to evaluate how they handle such situations, and maybe can serve as a reminder to those that harass others the impact of their words. There is no telling how many Phoebe Prince’s there are throughout the state – kids who are being subject to unrelenting taunts and humiliation, with seemingly nowhere to turn. Kids who feel that taking their own life is the only way to end the pain.

If there is anything positive that can come out of this tragedy, it is hopefully a heightened sense of awareness about the damaging power that bullying can have on children in their formative years. In this day and age with the prevalence of technology in society, along with the ability to connect with more people in more ways faster than ever before, the ability to harass and assassinate one’s character and dignity is has never been easier.

If it takes one child’s suicide to potentially change policies and attitudes that end up saving the lives of many other children, that would be the best possible outcome. That being said, every time I read an article about Phoebe, the picture of her smiling usually accompanies it. I can’t help but wonder if that was the last time she ever was able to truly smile.

For even though she may indeed help save the lives of others, her death is one too many.

April 9, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 3 Comments

Yolanda and her law

If Yolanda were alive today she would be wowing us all.  She was articulate, engaging, moving, smart and courageous.  And she, like many other young people, battled an illness that can bring formidable challenges. There are many other young people who are coping, just as she was, with a terrible struggle within them.  And alongside each one of them are the people who know and love them. 

Yolanda died 2 years ago today.  In an impulse no one still quite understands, she committed suicide one January night.  Her battle with bipolar illness was over.  If she were still here, she would now be 18, once an age of increased privileges.  Today, many of those privileges come earlier or later, but it is still a milestone year. 

Yolanda left a legacy.  In May 2007, she went before the Massachusetts legislature and spoke about her struggles with bipolar disorder, the system that often didn’t meet her needs and her own desire to make a difference.  She knew that the system that provided mental health services to children and teens needed some changes and she made sure she was part of seeing those changes begin.

Now, it’s pretty scary to go before legislative committees and talk to them. And this was a large hearing in a huge auditorium.  Yolanda had to sit and speak to a committee sitting raised above her with 300 people listening behind her.  It took courage, poise and determination.  It’s unusual for legislative committees to hear from teens.  They hear from heads of companies and advocates like me and they certainly hear from lobbyists.  So they paid attention to every word she spoke that day.  I later talked to members of that committee and they remembered her verve and poise.

 On that day, and probably many other days, Yolanda was an advocate.  I looked up the definition of advocate and the dictionary definition is, “to speak or write in favor of; support or urge by argument; or to recommend publicly.”  Because of her amazing qualities, the bill she testified for became known as Yolanda’s Law and was passed by the legislature in one session, a remarkable feat. 

Even though Yolanda’s influence lives on through “her” law,  her presence is felt strongly in other ways.  Her mother, Maryann Tufts, says that Yolanda “speaks to me often in amazing ways. Through every kid I see who is struggling to get through their day, to make friends, to feel better, to fit in.  We miss her so much, but know that she is still so present in every way.” 

Yolanda touched many lives. She was a remarkable young woman.  She was loved by her family, her friends and touched so many lives.   If love alone could have kept Yolanda here,  she would have lived to be a hundred years old.

January 27, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments