Breaking Through the Stigma
A firsthand account of one family’s journey through behavioral issues
When you’re holding newborn baby, it’s hard to imagine that small, innocent child might one day develop mental or behavioral health issues, but it happens all too often, and it can start early in childhood. In fact, 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.
Unfortunately, because of the stigma so often surrounding mental and behavioral health issues, the average time from the onset of symptoms to intervention is eight to 10 years. It is time to break through the stigma and have the conversations to get the help these children need to become well-adjusted adults and to reach their full potential.
I know from experience that mental and behavioral health issues can strike any family. It happened to mine.
Thirteen years ago, my wife, Tamara, and I had our first child, A.J. He was amazing, full of energy and life, but defiant from day one. By the time he was 18 months old, he was acting aggressively, hitting and biting. His behavior worsened, and he began locking himself in his room and pulling everything out of his drawers and breaking his toys. I remember coming home from work one day and finding my wife crying with all of A.J.’s belongings in garbage bags in the garage because she couldn’t stop him from throwing them around his room. We took the door off its hinges to try to keep him from repeating this behavior.
My wife and I were frustrated; we read every book on parenting and scoured the Internet for advice, yet we couldn’t figure out how to parent our four-year-old child. A.J. was adorable and loved by everyone but impossible for us to manage.
When we realized we needed professional medical help, we took A.J. to a neurologist who ran a battery of tests. At the time, my wife and I feared that A.J. had a chemical imbalance that would require him to be in and out of psychiatric hospitals his whole life. Following the tests, however, the neurologist said, “I could say he has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but he’s borderline at most.”
We then found a world-renowned behavioral psychologist. Though he was usually booked seven months in advance, a cancellation enabled us to get an earlier appointment. Three visits with the psychologist went the same way: He played a board game with A.J. and then spent time talking to Tamara and me. At the end of the third visit, he said we were ready to be discharged from his care. He told us exactly what we needed to do as parents, and over time, it worked. A.J. started behaving better and life started improving for all of us. We found the happy child inside a very angry one. We found peace in our home—so much so we went on to have three more children.
Today, at 13, A.J. is over six feet tall and weighs almost 200 pounds. He is an amazing big brother and has an incredible heart for Christ. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t look at my son and think he is the coolest dude I know.
It is hard to imagine what an aggressive, angry A.J. would look like in our household today—I don’t know how we would manage him or how many times law enforcement might have
to be called to deal with him. If we had waited the average 10 years that people spend before seeking care for children with mental or behavioral health issues, we would be contending with a much different A.J. than we are today. It is hard to believe that we initially refused to admit there was a problem, whereas if our child had cancer or diabetes or some other physical ailment, we would have sought immediate care and treatment—and that is what these kids need and deserve.
It is a sad reality that 70 percent of children in the juvenile justice system have a mental or behavioral issue. These are not bad kids; they are sick kids. They are not broken; they are not beyond repair.
There are stigmas and barriers to care, but we have amazing minds in Southwest Florida working to fix these problems. The team at Golisano Children’s Services at Lee Health is committed to helping these children get diagnosed early and getting them the right intervention, in the right place. With community support, we can change the conversation and have more A.J.’s in the world.
Armando Llechu is the chief administrative officer of Golisano Children’s Services at Lee Health. He and his wife, Tamara, live in Cape Coral with their four children: A.J., Aidan, Arianna and Andrew.
Because of the stigma so often surrounding mental and behavioral health issues, the average time from the onset of symptoms to intervention is eight to 10 years.
Armando Llechu and son A.J.