The Demons of Childhood
Young brains break. Then comes the broken care system
But one day, the school called and said Hudson was not well. He had dropped his pencil and seemed unable to hold it. By the time his grandmother Cindy appeared, he couldn't walk. He was having a rare but horrible reaction to the lithium and was nearly paralyzed by the time they got him to the emergency room, where he lay incapacitated for three days.
Alex and Hudson literally embody the profound complexity of prescribing some of these powerful drugs for developing young bodies and brains. While they are miracle drugs for many, for others they can produce horrible side effects. As DeLong says, "The medicine can turn these cases around pretty quickly; the challenge is to keep them turned around."
FOR NINE YEARS KELLY, TOM, AND Cindy Troyer have received a painful education in the field of children's mental health. With the two bipolar boys now in school, doing well, having difficult days but generally on the road to productive lives--Alex looks forward to "getting married and having my own kids"--the family now tries to help others by working with the Federation of Families of South Carolina. The first Tuesday evening of every month, they convene a parent group at the Allen Bennett Memorial Hospital in nearby Greer.
Fourteen parents are there this Tuesday evening. Couples sit together and hold hands; others are alone. Everyone looks exhausted as they talk about the dramas and tortures of living with children who have emotional disorders. One mother is applauded for finally qualifying for Medicaid. Another describes a harrowing night of violence with her daughter in which she finally was so fearful she called the police. Brushes with the law and encounters with the juvenile-justice system loom in many of their stories.
Alex and Hudson will most likely not end up in the juvenile-justice system, but they are the lucky ones. According to Karen Stern, a program manager in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention: "Prior to 1990, mental health problems weren't given much thought, or it was assumed to be a very small number of incarcerated kids. Since then there's been a growing recognition of the number. It's of great significance." According to a report submitted to Congress by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, an estimated 50 percent to 75 percent of the 2.5 million youths under age 18 who are arrested suffer from mental health problems. It has often been said that the Los Angeles County Jail is the largest mental institution in the country; that phenomenon is also reflected in the juvenile-justice system.
IT IS THE END OF THE DAY. THE BOYS are back from school, the family therapist has come and gone, Alex and Hudson are playing outside with a neighbor's child, and Brandon is getting ready to go to a church function with friends. A stew simmers on the stove. Tom Troyer, 56, sits in an easy chair in the living room of the house he shares with his extended family. A tall man with the sturdy competence of his Hoosier upbringing, Troyer concedes he never gave mental illness a second thought until it afflicted his family. He has since become a passionate advocate for the mentally ill. "I remember that someone in our church once said that Alex was probably possessed by the Devil," he recalls. "Now don't get me wrong, I believe in demonic possession. But that is not what is wrong with Alex and Hudson. They are ill. It's that simple. And the illness is as medical as diabetes."