My friend’s eight-year-old son punched a hole through the sheetrock of his new classroom two months ago. His parents had moved him from the elementary school he’d attended since kindergarten because he was eating his lunch alone or not eating at all. He refused to go on the family’s spring vacation and requested a home office instead so that he “could get his life organized.”

None of the behavior rang alarm bells–the son had always been extremely quiet and unusually bright. But, when the small fist of the shy kid went through the sheetrock, people started looking for answers. Inside the boy’s black journal, there were stick figures of ambulance workers loading a child into the back of a car. “I need to go to the hospital,” he told his mom.

My friend says she feels as if she can’t breathe correctly. It started when her son sat in the car outside school that day and told his mom he’d been coming up with ways to kill himself.

“I have several ideas,” he said, staring into his hands.

“Thank you for telling me,” she whispered back.

“I don’t want to die,” he said. “But, I can’t stop thinking about it.”

She tried to be calm on the drive to the emergency room. She was told there were ten children ahead of her son, all waiting for a psychiatric bed to open.  The administrator said the boy could be there all weekend and not be treated for his mental health condition.

“Can you imagine breaking your leg and being told you’ll need to wait a week to get care?” she asked. They sent the family home with a bottle of anti-depressants, but without a referral to a psychiatrist.

His tongue swells. His stomach churns. He wakes up in cold sweats at night, drenching the sheet. There is no one to call to see whether the side effects are normal or worrisome. Someone in the family must sleep with the boy at all times. Someone is always on duty; to follow him to the bathroom and wait while he showers.

They eat meals with plastic utensils.

There is only one thing I offer that seems to help: “The majority of young people experiencing their first psychotic episode will make a complete recovery.”* It’s a reference point my friend desperately needs to have repeated.

The trajectory of recovery is variable. It takes weeks to know if a certain drug is the right drug, or whether it is even working. There is the risk that anti-depressants may make some children more suicidal. Some people get better quite suddenly. Others relapse, and then gradually get better.

Accessing the mental health patchwork of services is  like running a corn maze blindfolded. There’s always another obstacle. You wish someone who was in charge could give you a map.  Her days and nights stretch into one another. For the first time in months, she heard her son playing his guitar and she cried. But there is silence from the outside world.


*The National Institute of Mental Health reports that “unlike most disabling physical diseases, mental illness begins very early in life. Half of all lifetime cases begin by age 14; three-quarters have begun by age 24. Thus, mental disorders are the chronic diseases of the young. For example, anxiety disorders often begin in late childhood, mood disorders in late adolescence, and substance abuse in the early twenties.”

*A combination of funding cutbacks,  cuts in the Oregon Health Plan, rising health care costs and a decrease in the number of psychiatrists have all contributed to what has become a crisis-level shortage of beds for mental health patients in metropolitan Portland.

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23 replies
  1. Nancy Powell
    Nancy Powell says:

    My heart breaks for this boy and his family. I hope they find the help he needs soon. Our mental health care in this country is sorely lacking.
    When my oldest son was five and threatened to jump out the 2nd story window I called a psychiatrist and the first thing he asked me is if we had insurance. 🙁

  2. Lori Kramer
    Lori Kramer says:

    My heart goes out to your friend and her family. I cannot imagine what they are all going through right now, especially with no help or hope in sight. I do hope this passes and he returns to being a normal, quiet, smart child.

  3. Susanne E
    Susanne E says:

    I just don’t understand how we treat the treatment for mental illness as some sort of “extra” that’s optional, like a face lift. I just don’t get it.

  4. Shellie
    Shellie says:

    This story is not unusual. The system is taxed and not enough services to support the need. I appreciate you aligning mental illness with physical health illness. I lost a daughter to cancer 23 years ago. I work with children with mental illness and I see daily the difficult path these families are on. My angst as a parent compares equally with theirs. We can affect change by awareness. Thanks again Sheila.

  5. Chris Farentinos
    Chris Farentinos says:

    Sheila, I know way too well about the shortage of beds and psychiatrists. Legacy has one of two inpatient psychiatric units for children and adolescents and we just recently lost two of the psychiatrists. High burn out level, so hard to recruit. Have you thought about telling your friend to look for help for her at NAMI? There is also a parents support group run by a NAMI parent, Maragert Pukket. I can get you the information. My heart goes out to your friend!

    • Sheila Hamilton
      Sheila Hamilton says:

      I have, Chris. I put them in touch with their local chapter of NAMI and led them to Multnomah County for respite care. Hopefully, this acute phase will pass soon. Their son slept through the night this week. Progress!

  6. Robin
    Robin says:

    If your child had cancer, your friends, family and the community at large would rally around you, bring you meals, raise funds and put their arms around you.
    If your child had a mental health episode, you’re likely to be greeted with awkward, uncomfortable silence and maybe some judgment thrown in for good measure.

  7. Katie
    Katie says:

    I spent a good part of last year trying to get help fo my 13 year old son. The Morrison Center here in Portland is a great resource, but if you can’t get your depressed, anxious, nearly agoraphobic child to go, it gets really hard. I had to call the crisis line repeatedly to get a level of urgency noted for us. I would sob, asking them if we had to wait for him to hurt himself before it was a true crisis? I was given options such as escalating his agitation to the point of getting the police involved in order to get him in for a possible psych evaluation. Fortunately our school, in PPS, was a huge support, we finally got upped to in house counseling after enough calls to the crisis line and my continued contact with Morrison. The isolation, loneliness and all out fear that goes with this is overwhelming. Thank you Sheila.

    • Sheila Hamilton
      Sheila Hamilton says:

      Hi Katie,
      Nightmare stories. Thanks for hanging in there for your teenager, Katie. I might also suggest reaching out to your local NAMI for your support?


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