“You’ve got to pull your hips into the bar, like you’ve got to kick up like that,” explained their mother, Selena.
“I tried to kick! I did this — you told me not to stick out,” said Laney indignantly.
Both girls have been diagnosed with mental illnesses — Sydney with bipolar disorder and Laney with a similar illness called disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. The family asked that their last name not be used to protect the girls’ privacy.
School has been a real challenge for them. That’s not unusual for the 1 in 5 children with a mental illness. They often suffer anxiety, difficulty focusing and social challenges. Half of them drop out of high school, in part because many schools don’t manage to meet their needs.
Selena has spent the past eight years trying to get the girls the resources to help them succeed. Like a lot of parents of kids with mental health issues, she’s had to be her children’s biggest advocate.
“It’s definitely a journey. It wasn’t easy,” she said, even though she’s a school guidance counselor herself.
Sydney describes class as “boring, distracting. It’s hard to pay attention. It’s overwhelming.” She struggles to focus or process information, which makes her so anxious and depressed that she often has to leave school in the middle of the day.
She wants to be a rock star like Courtney Love. Every so often she pretends to take drag from a bubble gum cigarette. But she’s an extremely sensitive kid, and school has been a painful experience.
“I used to cry the night before, because I didn’t want to go to school,” she said.
Laney on the other hand is a ball of chaotic energy. At school, she often gets frustrated and acts out. Sometimes, she is sent home.
Schools do not all screen students for mental health issues, and the practice varies widely across states. Even if students are successfully identified, many areas lack the community-based mental health treatment options that would be needed to help them. Just 38 percent of youth with a mood disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder receive treatment services. In 2014, the federal government announced $48 million in new grants to support teachers, schools and communities in recognizing and responding to mental health issues. Still, many students’ mental health problems continue to go unidentified and untreated.
When Selena first noticed the girls were having problems, she took them to the doctor. Sydney started taking medication at the age of 7 and Laney at just 4, but it wasn’t a quick fix.
“The brain is complex,” said Selena. “It’s not like you just take a medicine and it fixes it.” It took years to get the girls’ diagnoses and prescriptions right.
Selena said she needed to educate teachers about her daughters’ illnesses. “I really tried to do my homework. I did a lot of research. Obviously I talked to parents online in a support group,” she said.
Schools are starting to better recognize that mental health is key to academic and social success, said Darcy Gruttadaro, director of advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a grassroots organization headquartered outside Washington, D.C.