Parents become advocates for mental health awareness

"The parent support we received at Bert Nash was helpful. It made us realize, oh, we’re not the worst parents in the world," Kathy Brown said.

"The parent support we received at Bert Nash was helpful. It made us realize, oh, we’re not the worst parents in the world," Kathy Brown said. by Jeff Burkhead

Note: Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center will observe Mental Health Awareness Month in May with stories of hope and recovery.

It used to be, Matt and Kathy Brown didn’t talk about mental illness and how it impacted their children.

“We hid it from everybody at first, because of the stigma,” Matt said.

Eventually, they opened up about things with Matt’s mom.

“She is the only one who knew about it for a long time,” Matt said.

Today, the Browns talk openly about the mental illness in their family. Matt even proudly displays a mental health awareness ribbon that he had tattooed on his back.

“We finally got to the place where we didn’t care what people thought,” he said.

“We’re pretty much an open book now,” Kathy said.

The Browns share a seat on the Bert Nash Governing Board. Their youngest child has received services at Bert Nash. Their two oldest children have received mental health services from other providers.

“I knew about Bert Nash through work,” said Kathy, who is a first-grade teacher at Broken Arrow Elementary School. “But while I was aware of Bert Nash, I didn’t know about the range of services, until we started utilizing them. That’s the biggest thing for us, the range of services.”

The Browns’ youngest child, Marissa, who is 19, started receiving services at Bert Nash when she was 16. Those services included Adolescent Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and med management. Matt and Kathy also joined DBT group sessions.

“It was especially validating to us as parents,” Kathy said. “It helped to meet people who were going through the same things we were.”

For parents with children who are dealing with mental illness, it can be difficult to manage, let alone accept.

“I didn’t want to believe that something was wrong with my kid,” Kathy said. “It was hard to embrace that this was real. The parent support we received at Bert Nash was helpful. It made us realize, oh, we’re not the worst parents in the world.”

Marissa went through three in-patient stays at facilities in the Kansas City area before her condition stabilized. People watching on the outside sometimes didn’t understand what Marissa was going through and why she couldn’t just snap out of it.

“For her, the anxiety is debilitating. She can’t function,” Kathy said. “So getting people to understand what that is like to live like that was particularly difficult. When you don’t live with it every day, it’s easy to say just get over it. But that wasn’t going to fix it. Now, we don’t sugarcoat it. We just say this is what happened and we’re dealing with it.”

Matt, before becoming an audiologist was a former police officer in Leawood and Branson, Mo., and saw a lot of mental illness in people he encountered on the job.

Her own children’s struggles have also made Kathy a mental health advocate in the classroom. She shared the story about a student she had when she taught at Deerfield Elementary School.

“His parents were recently divorced and he was having a hard time. He was really aggressive and his mom was at her wit’s end, so we talked about Bert Nash,” Kathy said. “Before he went to Bert Nash he was undoing paperclips and using them to cut himself; he was talking about hurting himself and others. But within a month or two of getting services and med management, he was a totally different kid. He keeps in contact with me. He’s a great kid.”

The student’s mom was grateful for Kathy’s help and concern and nominated her for Teacher of the Year.

“I didn’t win, but that was OK,” said Kathy, who frequently refers troubled students and parents to Bert Nash. “A lot of times people don’t know where to go for help. But I can be advocate for the parents of my students, because I’ve been there. Mental illness is not isolated to certain groups of people. It’s everywhere. I think the one thing out of all of this is it’s an opportunity to raise awareness. We would have never gotten to where we are without the help we received.”

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