Callie Boisvert and Abbey Shumway are willing to share their struggles with mental health. But that wasn’t always the case.
Boisvert was bullied in her last two years of middle school and it led to what she called a suicidal depression. Instead of discussing with others how she was feeling, Boisvert kept it buried deep inside.
“I had no idea how to handle it,” she said. “I never really fully recovered from it. It affects me so much to this day.”
But Boisvert has seen changes in herself, especially after she started to be more open about how she was feeling – to her parents, friends and a counselor.
“You don’t want to be a burden, but it’s very helpful,” Boisvert said. “And I’d be so much of a better person if I had done that sooner.”
Shumway suffered from bad anxiety attacks in sixth grade and at the time didn’t know what it was.
“I’d try to cover it up because I didn’t want people to know what was going on with me,” she said.
But like her fellow ConVal sophomore, Shumway finally got the nerve to share her experiences.
“If you don’t struggle with it yourself, you don’t understand,” she said. But eventually, Shumway came to the realization that she needed to talk to others.
And with May marked as Children’s Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s the perfect time to bring the topic to the forefront.
Need for more
Dennis Calcutt, director of Connected Families NH with offices in Keene and Claremont, said there are benefits to the months and days bringing attention to the issue of children’s mental health – but really the focus needs to be year-round because it is so important to begin that conversation at an early age.
“When you’re looking at children, their life span as a child is not long compared to the rest of their life, but it’s the foundation that sets up the rest of their life,” Calcutt said.
Thankfully there are many local organizations that can either help with children’s mental health or point you in the right direction, places like The River Center in Peterborough, The Grapevine in Antrim, Monadnock Family Services, MAPS Counseling Services and so on.
Calcutt said that physicians are more equipped now to understand mental health struggles and that can go a long way to aiding someone who is seeking help. One difficulty currently is access to services.
“The challenge of it all right now is the volume is massive,” Calcutt said. “We really do have a crisis.”
Liz Biron, a children’s clinician at Monadnock Family Services, agreed.
“We’re at a crisis point for mental health with kids,” she said. She said the last year-plus living with the pandemic has had a great effect on children and it shouldn’t be brushed aside. “Growing up is hard and then you toss a pandemic on top of that.”
Biron said the phone rings off the hook from families looking for help.
“The need is greater than the availability,” she said. “It can be discouraging and overwhelming.”
At a young age, Peterborough Fire Chief Ed Walker’s daughter, Jeanie, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. As she got into her teenager years, Jeanie started exhibiting other mental health issues, like hallucinations and delusions.
“They were affecting with her ability to function at school, function at home,” Walker said. It was determined to be a thought disorder known as Schizoaffective disorder.
Walker said it was the attention placed on his daughter that led to the diagnosis, even though it was more than a decade after her original autism diagnosis.
“It was really us as parents,” Walker said. “We noticed there were these changes. It was sort of over time, but there was a lot going on that wasn’t going on before.”
He said the key is for parents to be aware and understanding.
“One of the barriers for children is mom or dad not being willing to acknowledge there’s a problem,” Walker said. “You need to have a relationship where the child is able to say something is wrong.”
Calcutt said it is crucial for parents to not only be involved in their child’s mental health, but be cognizant of it.
“Adults don’t always pay attention,” he said. Being a positive influence and offering praise can go a long way.
“We have these effects on children all the time,” Calbutt said. “I think it’s important to reinforce you’re doing well. You are special, you are important. We don’t always know our strengths are our strengths, especially as children, so we have to foster children’s strengths. We have to tell them when they’re doing well.”
He said that it is so important that a parent knows their child because that is the only way to determine if something “is just not right.”
“First of all, it’s the parent making sure it feels safe and comfortable to talk,” Calcutt said. “You’re going to run into different situations, but we have to set the tone.”
A huge issue for children is not knowing who to turn to “especially with mental health. It’s where do I go and what do I do?” Calcutt said.
Biron said parents are a critical component in their child’s mental health. Schools also play a part, as MFS collaborates with the ConVal, Jaffrey-Rindge, Mascenic and Wilton-Lyndeborough school districts out of the Peterborough office.
One key component is normalizing and validating the way a child is feeling. And it starts with having open and honest conversations.
“I tell everybody that everyone needs to work on their communication,” Biron said. Having regular check-ins as part of the family routine can make a big difference. “They’ll be more comfortable to come talk to you and tell you what’s going on.”
Sharing how adults are feeling with a child can also open the lines of communication.
“It’s okay for your kids to know it’s hard for you too and it might allow them to open up and share,” Biron said. Being present and asking questions is so critical. “The gift of time is a tremendous investment that can make all the difference.”
What to look for
Calcutt said a tell-tale sign of a mental health issue is a change in behavior and “the first step is asking questions.”
Once the conversation begins then you can really help get to the root of what a child is feeling, Calcutt said.
Biron, who sees children ages 7 to 17, said there are many changes that can tip off parents to a mental health struggle in their children, like new eating, sleeping and activity habits.
“Living a healthy life is one of the most critical things you can do for your mental health,” Biron said.
And Biron wants people to know that asking for help doesn’t mean you will need to see a therapist for the rest of your life.
“It can be as simple as life is hard right now,” she said.
Walker said Jeanie, who is now 21, “is incredibly self aware with how she’s feeling.” There are times when she has been hospitalized for what Walker equates to a tune or change in her medication. “There’s that acknowledgment that a problem exists and we are very fortunate that she’s open with how she’s feeling and what’s going on.”
Walker is trained in leading Youth Mental Health First Aid programs and the point is to empower any individual that works with children to have an awareness. The difficulty is that some signs of mental health issues overlap with the typical behaviors of growing up.
“And it can be incredibly challenging trying to sort that out,” he said.
“People talk about mental health as if it’s abnormal,” Calcutt said. But he said mental health should be looked at in the same way as physical health. Just because issues aren’t visible, doesn’t mean they aren’t there and shouldn’t be addressed with the same compassion and care.
Since mental health isn’t on the outside, Calcutt said so many people feel like they’re the only ones going through it – and nothing could be further from the case.
“We really have to be thoughtful of the language we use to describe people and what they’re going through,” Calcutt said. It boils down to making it okay to ask for help, he said.
Biron said she likes to hope the stigma surrounding mental illness is going away, but knows there is more to be done.
“We need to foster a culture where it’s okay to talk about your feelings,” she said.
Walker said everyone needs to understand that mental health is an issue for many people. It’s about building trust.
“And we need to get to a point where mental health isn’t a reflection of you as an individual,” he said
Biron will be discussing the topic of children’s mental health through the Community Resource Spotlight at The River Center on May 20 via Zoom from 7 to 8 p.m. – just another way to bring more attention to the topic.
Two years ago, Boisvert and Shumway saw a number of tragic losses in the ConVal School District and wanted to find a way to help bring attention to the issue of children’s mental health, and more specifically suicide.
They founded the Break the Silence 5K run for suicide awareness and prevention and this year’s event on April 24 raised about $5,000, which is to be donated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“We just felt there was no awareness, no one was helping,” Boisvert said.
While COVID-19 has limited what the ConVal sophomores can do, they have big plans. They want to talk to middle school students to help show them that they’re not alone and it’s okay to express how you’re feeling.
“When we were in middle school no one really talked about mental health,” Boisvert said. She said it leaves you with no idea how to handle what is going on and what steps can be taken to address any issues that come up.
“It’s important to hear it from someone close to you in age,” Shumway said. “I want people to hear that.” Especially after the last year, where students have been unable to hang out with friends and the difficulties of navigating a global pandemic can really wear on you. “We want them to know it’s okay to open up and have those conversations.”
They both know how struggles with mental health are very individual, and want others to know the benefits of talking about it.
“They need to be informed what mental illness is and how do you cope with it,” Boisvert said.
Having someone to talk to that isn’t going to judge you or think it’s merely for attention is crucial.
“It’s easy to talk to someone who isn’t going to do that,” Boisvert said. “And if you need help, you can get it.”
And one thing Shumway likes to remind herself and others is that it’s not an easy fix.
“It does take a really long time to be okay and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a long process,” she said.