Break­ing Through the Stigma

A first­hand ac­count of one fam­ily’s jour­ney through be­hav­ioral is­sues

RSWLiving - - Contents - BY AR­MANDO LLECHU 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.

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

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.

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 and son A.J.

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