Emily Courtney, PsyD
I want to tell you a story:
There once was a little girl who felt very strange. Sometimes she would feel so weird it was uncomfortable just to be her. Sometimes, to make it better, she would just start to walk. Once, when she was three years old, she walked out her front door and walked and walked until she came to a house she recognized. She knocked on the door and when the woman answered the door she asked for some milk and cookies. The woman brought the child some milk and cookies and dialed a number, "Are you missing your daughter? Apparently she walked all the way across town to come ask me for some milk and cookies. I just thought you should know."
When she was older, around five or so, she'd leave her house in the middle of the night and sleep in the broken down car parked in the side yard. Or she'd go sleep in the barn over by the horses that she liked to watch. Or she'd sneak into people's houses as they slept and just look around. It made her feel better to smell the lives of strangers in their kitchens or TV rooms. Sometimes it smelled like love and it made her feel better.
When she finally started school she would wake up hours before she needed. She'd make her lunch, get dressed and walk to school. In the dark. She would sit alone on the steps of the school waiting for the sun to rise to warm her, and the school to fill with happy children and smiling teachers. Sometimes she'd swing at the playground, but mostly she would just sit. Still and silent.
Her kindergarten teacher called her mother once. The teacher said, "I really don't know how to say this...I'm kind of embarrassed actually...I've never, well, I'm not complaining, I'm just...it's just an observation. Well, it's just that...your daughter is different. In a good way! I mean that truly. She's very good. That's the problem. She's just so good. Very polite. She sits at her desk and just sits. She never complains, never gets distracted, always does her work immediately and always finishes first. It's just...do you see what I'm saying, it's just not right. Something's not right."
So tell me...
What do you think about this little girl? What do you think her parents think about her? What about her friends? Do you think she has any? What do the neighbors think about her? Her teachers? What do you think is wrong with her? Is she just being a kid? Is she just different and it's okay? Is she happy? Will she grow out of it? Are you worried about her?
What does that little girl make you feel? Did you think about what it might feel like to be her parent, or teacher, or friend? If she was the child of one of your friends, what might you say to your friend about her? Anything?
What if she was your daughter?
The little girl in the story is depressed. Clinically depressed. She was depressed as a toddler and grew to be a depressed middle-schooler, and onto a depressed teenager and so on, and so on, and so on...
Do you believe me?
I wouldn't be a bit surprised if you didn't.
There is quite a bit of discourse among laypersons and professionals alike when it comes to believing a child as young as three could even be depressed or anxious. They tend to think, "Come on now...what could they possibly be depressed or anxious about at that age!?!" Or even worse, let's say that you, the person who knows your child the best out of anyone else in the world, is told by countless people, "Oh tut-tut. You're just being over-dramatic. She's fine. She'll grow out of it. It's only a stage."
Is any of this sounding familiar to you? If it does, then I'm sorry. I'm sorry you were not heard. It's because of this perception that there are too few studies and too few adults who concern themselves with early mental health interventions for the littlest ones in our lives.
Thankfully attentive parents like you, innovative researchers, and clinicians such as me and others at The Tarnow Center are raising the bar when it comes to acting as swiftly as possible when it comes to getting mental health care for the children in our lives that need it – as soon as they need it!
One recent study found that children who were depressed or anxious at the age of three were five times more likely to meet the same criterion at the age of six than those who did not have an initial diagnosis. A 2014 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found evidence that preschool depression is the largest predictor of full-blown depression later in life when left untreated.
I can't even count how many discussions I have had with colleagues over the years in regard to early interventions for children. Every time there is a horrific incident in a school, or a young person takes their own life, or a story about an unimaginable tale of bullying is published we practically crowd together all asking the same question, "What can we do? What can we do?!?"
The wonderful truth is we can do a lot.
The frustrating truth is we can't do a thing if no one brings these children to us because the adult is afraid of the stigma, or the label, or the judgment, or the fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, blame...
We understand. As much as we can understand the situation these adults find themselves in, we still beg of you...Please. Please, let us help you. Please, let us help your child. We understand that none of this is fair. It's not fair, it's not right, it's not what you wanted when you dreamed of watching your child grow to become more brilliant and radiant than a billion stars. We understand. We are here to help.
Let me ask you this; there is nothing wrong with taking your child to the doctor to see what that weird bump on his arm is that you spotted last night at bath-time, right? Of course not! If your child takes a tumble down the stairs you don't tell yourself that she'll grow right out of those cuts and bumps and broken bones, do you? No. That is silly.
Using that metaphoric lens to reexamine children's mental health highlights some things. If something doesn't look right to you, it makes sense to bring your child to someone who can make sense of it. If your child goes through something traumatic, it makes sense to provide your child with someone who can help them process through it therapeutically.
If you, or someone you know is unsure about what is going on with a child, The Tarnow Center wants to help. We will work with you and your child to understand what is going on inside that little body of theirs, and we offer a wide range of modalities to reach that place of understanding. Once we understand what is going on we will formulate a personalized plan to optimize your child's treatment. Call us anytime: 713-621-9515
There isn't a reason in the world you and your child have to suffer when we're right here.
Knock on our door. We'll have the milk and cookies waiting for you.