My Experience with Mental Illness

Before reading this post please watch the video in my previous post.

This is my youngest son. I think he’s pretty cool. He’s a lot of fun, very energetic, and incredibly smart. He’s a very talented athlete – he swims, plays baseball, does parkour, runs, and excels at all of them.

He has ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and a Mood Disorder “otherwise unspecified,” according to the official diagnosis he received at age 6.

We removed him from his first preschool before he was asked to leave.

We found another preschool with an incredible teacher who didn’t see him as a problem. She recognized his talents and natural ability to mentor and had him help the younger children in the mixed-age class. He thrived.

In Kindergarten, we were called to meet with the teacher on the second day of school. Joshua was put on a behavioral plan, which I referred to as the “Scarlet Letter” because he wore a piece of paper pinned to his shirt that would be marked if he didn’t follow the rules.

In 1st Grade we were called to meet with the teacher and counselor on an almost-weekly basis. The teacher had zero understanding of ADHD. When Joshua hid behind the coats after getting in trouble , she would see him smirking (he does this when he’s embarrassed) and decided that he was just doing it for fun. It took 3 visits to the Principal before I finally got her to understand that he needed the evening to calm down before he was ready to discuss “his behavior” with her. Because this wasn’t the way she did things. Well guess what, this wasn’t the way I did things before Joshua, either.

It wasn’t until 2nd Grade that he got a teacher who finally understood. Who realized that he needed time to calm down and that if she just ignored him when he hid in the coats or tore up his paper or fidgeted incessantly, he would eventually go back to work. Who praised his efforts and accomplishments rather than bringing attention to his every mistake.

He’s now in 3rd Grade and is doing much better, thanks to a team of a psychiatrist, play therapist, counselor, caseworker, and a great teacher. Thankfully our health insurance covers some of the costs associated with mental health, but we still pay a large amount out of pocket. And I worry about all the parents out there who can’t afford these costs. Who can’t pay for play therapy (not covered), drugs (very expensive if you don’t have insurance), psychiatrists (incredibly expensive).

Do I think Joshua’s a dangerous threat? No. Have his words and actions in the past scared me and made me think he might be? Yes. Children with mental illnesses are much more likely to commit crimes and end up in jail than the general population. So we keep a close eye and stay vigilant, especially as he gets older.

I hope more attention will be given to the mental health issue in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. But if it isn’t, and if we focus all our efforts on hating the killer and debating gun control, we’ll have missed an opportunity to bring to the forefront an issue that desperately needs discussion, and an opportunity to create some good from such devestation.

Here’s a great article that inspired mine.


  1. Powerful words, Alison. I worked with similar children as a social worker in elementary schools (much worse, actually, than what you are describing)…. there are so few resources and so few teachers that are willing to find ways to help make it work in their classrooms. Did you see the article in the Huffington post? Similar sentiments from a mom… I hope we can gain more awareness about the whole spectrum of mental health in our children and make some changes!
    Laura @ Mommy Run Fast recently posted..5 by the 5th Virtual Race Series UpdatesMy Profile

    • Racingtales says:

      Thanks, Laura. Yes, I read the article (linked at the end of my post but guess it wasn’t very obvious!) and that’s what inspired me. Certainly there are far worse situations than Joshua’s (we see some of them at the psychiatrist and it makes me sad and relieved at the same time) and I can’t imagine what you must have seen as a social worker…

  2. Great post and perspective. I have been wanting to write on the topic since it has affected me more than 911 in a way, since I have two elementary school kids and keep seeing their faces on the faces of the victims. We all have to be our childrens strongest advocates, and you have certainly done so.

  3. This is one of those times where I worry that I have a Devil’s Advocate in me; I don’t have answers in this case, just thoughts and more questions.

    Before the Sandy Hook tragedy, I’d been following a school of thought that was saying that our educational system was failing boys, in that the way we’re asking them to learn and respond is unnatural for many boys (; I’ve got a 3-year old is very energetic, rambunctious, sometimes defiant, and can show reluctance to learn things like numbers and ABCs.

    As parents do, I worry. Not because I think there is something wrong with him so much as that I think he’ll be perceived as such; I’ve heard horror stories of teachers ‘diagnosing’ students with ADHD and sliding a pamphlet across the desk to parents for recommended drug treatments (guess who sponsored/paid for that pamphlet)? I don’t know enough about Oppositional Defiant Disorder, but it might just be the next over-diagnosed disorder du jour.

    I know your son is not one of these mis-diagnosed cases, and I’m glad that the tools you have at your disposal are working for him, Alison. I guess I was already worried about the narrowing definition of ‘normal’ before this, and now we’re all going to be looking at our boys through this lens of preventing a potential tragedy, where fear and horror can influence our judgement. And I say this with the knowledge and belief that mental health initiatives do need to be improved and overhauled.
    Axel recently posted..A Winter 10k RaceMy Profile

    • Racingtales says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful response, Axel. While I do think it’s easy for boys to get pigeonholed as difficult simply because they’re more active than girls, I think it’s better that we are tuned in to these issues than not. Joshua’s 2nd preschool teacher, the wonderful one who saw his potential, recommended a book, “Why Gender Matters,” which explains how boys’ brains are wired differently from girls’ and why this is a problem in schools with mostly female teachers who don’t relate so well to the boys… probably saying some of the same things as that article…sorry, haven’t had a chance to read it yet. What aggravated me more than anything was that the school presented all the problems to me but offered no solutions. I requested Child Study meetings and an IEP, which really got Joshua the help and support he needed.

  4. Back when I was doing my internship for my MA in counseling, I spent time working with boys in an elementary school, all of whom were diagnosed with ADD (some also had hyperactivity). When they would get squirmy we would take them to the gym and let them run a few laps. My supervising counselor was so good with the boys and seemed to genuinely love them. I wish our nation would put money and not just lip service into helping families where mental illness is present. The stigma and isolation is hard enough without all the added costs and anguish.
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    • Racingtales says:

      That is such a wonderful response; I wish more teachers would do that rather than insisting that kids sit still for hours on end. Joshua was allowed to sit on a stability ball last year; he decided he didn’t need it this year!

  5. I totally agree- the conversation about treating mental illness has been missing largely from the news. As well, you highlight another key point – what a difference a good teacher can make. Great, amazing, dedicated teachers are out there in the public schools for sure! Kudos to your family for advocating for your son.
    KymberlyFunFit recently posted..Boomer Time and Anytime – Double Time!My Profile

  6. Alison,
    Thank you for opening up and telling us about your son. I think many people, including myself, do not understand many aspects of mental illness. I know one thing, that we need to have compassion and focus on this issue. I think many things have gotten worse, hence the rise in masacres. We live in a world that if you don’t like something you remove it from your metaphorical “feed”, facebook has been good for many things but it creates this world where we either “like” or don’t “like”, “see” or “don’t see”. Parents and teachers are stressed beyond what is normal, with class sizes rising and responsibilities and pressures growing we often just look the other way or avoid the issue of mental illness. You’re an a amazing parent always putting your children first despite modern life. This is an important article and one that needs to be seen and discussed. Let’s do something together to get these kids help.
    Lisa McClellan recently posted..Tell me about your 2012My Profile

  7. Thanks for sharing, Alison. I know this has got to be hard for your family. I’m so happy to hear that you have found a system that is willing to work with you. And I totally agree that much more of our focus needs to be on the mental health system that is clearly failing. I have a brother-in-law with schizophrenia and I can not tell you how many institutions, half-way houses, medications, etc. he has been on over the years. And yes, he is a bit on the dangerous side if he is left to care for himself b/c he fails to take his medicine. It’s a tough issue that needs attention right along with gun control. Every person like you who speaks up and shows that it isn’t something to hide or be ashamed about is taking a step toward the positive–well done.
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  8. Hi Alison. I’m Stuart’s cousin in CA. I absolutely agree with your point about focusing on mental illness. In fact, this was almost the exact conversation I was having with my mother and sister yesterday while talking about the Sandy Hook tragedy. We were friends with so many children growing up who were clearly dealing with some sort of mental illness that went untreated and undiagnosed until well into adulthood. Unless, of course, you count punishments and threats as treatment. Back then (in the ’70s) there existed a much larger stigma associated with mental illness, and a lot less was understood about specific disorders and their appropriate treatments. It seemed like odd behaviors were either punished or covered up by families.

    But today in this country, there is no excuse to ignore all that we now understand about mental illnesses. As a society, we would be doing ourselves a great favor by recognizing children with behaviors that are outside the “norm” and reacting appropriately – with support and understanding for both the child and their family, by providing training to our educators to understand these behaviors, and including treatment and counseling as part of a medical insurance plan available to families in any economic class.

    We are still in touch with a few of our childhood friends who were “different”, two of which were diagnosed with schizophrenia. They are good people who we could all learn a lot from. Were we ever afraid they would turn to violence? Never. Should we have been? Maybe, given the way they were treated by a society who had largely rejected them. I’m not sure how peaceful or content I would be had I spent most of my life stamped as a “bad” kid, rejected and misunderstood by everybody around me. This is what we need to address as a society in the aftermath of Sandy Hook.

    I watched the awesome video of your son, Joshua, making the origami stormtrooper. He looks like an amazing and talented young man who make you and Stuart very proud. I hope you’re always able to surround him with friends and professionals who will encourage his strengths and talents, rather than tag him with the “scarlet letter”. Raising a child with extra needs shouldn’t be something your family does alone; it should include plenty of help and understanding from everybody around you! Kudos to you for posting about Joshua!

  9. As a teacher of 2-5th graders I see a ton of students with all sorts of different diagnosis. I think it is so important to look past the label and find out what really works for the child. It sounds like your son has had some great teachers who did that, and some who were just too stuck in their ways.
    You are doing an amazing job looking out for his best interests.
    I appreciate you sharing this as I know it can be hard to put personal family information out there.
    Abby @ BackAtSquareZero recently posted..Forced DowntimeMy Profile

    • Racingtales says:

      Thanks, Abby. I wasn’t sure whether it was a good idea to share this info, but based on the positive responses I received, I’m glad I did!


  1. […] Alison addressed the issue appropriately at racingtales.   We have our hands full and we know it.  If one person reads her blog, or this one, and takes […]

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