Not all disabilities are easy to spot, and the invisible ones can pose some of the biggest challenges.
When Kameron Kriese started acting differently from the other kids as a two year-old - behaving ‘badly’, to be precise – his mother Monica initially wondered if it was her fault.
“I started questioning my parenting skills,” Monica recalls. “His behaviour became more and more - for want of a better word - ugly.”
The search for answers hasn’t been easy. Mental health issues, Kameron’s eventual diagnosis, are hard to identify in children, and symptoms are often dismissed as behavioural issues.
Monica, a single mom in Salmon Arm, knew something was wrong, and it was more than just bad behaviour. Kameron’s outbursts and rages became more intense, and his actions were at times dangerous. A succession of caregivers came and went, unable to handle him, until Monica opted for self-employment - and a series of small contracts - so she could care for him.
The first official suggestion that Kameron likely had mental illness came when he was three. In some ways, hearing that was something of a relief for his mother.
But not entirely. Knowing there are medical reasons and treatment options for your child doesn’t ease the blow of being told he has a challenging and lifelong medical condition - especially one which carries so much stigma. “There is a bit of a grieving time,” recalls Monica.
Fortunately, Monica and Kameron found a lifeline in the Shuswap Children’s Association, a non-profit dedicated to helping children and families, with a special focus on children with special needs and health challenges, including mental health issues.
The association offers a wide range of programs for children and families, from group sessions and drop-in play groups to individualized supports.
A support worker has helped Kameron develop coping skills and strategies to manage his emotions and behaviours and control his outbursts and meltdowns. He got one-on-one help from the association to give him a chance to experience pre-school and then school, at least on a part-time basis.
But Kameron was home-schooled for most of his elementary school years because his behaviours were too difficult and in-school supports weren’t available. (He’s 17 now and has never attended school full-time.)
Kameron’s illness was more specifically diagnosed as he aged, and includes bipolar disorder, anxiety and ADHD. He’s now being re-assessed for autism at the higher-functioning end of the spectrum.
The association’s support continued through the years. For almost 13 years, the same case manager handled Kameron’s interactions with the association, providing important continuity and consistency.
“They have been building blocks,” Monica says. “They have been a foundation for his care and development.”
There will be no magical cure for Kameron, though medication and clinical support helps. Mental illness is often isolating. It’s hard to make or have friends as a teenager when your behaviours and way of thinking are so markedly different.
“We still have meltdowns, bad moods and dark days,” Monica says. “But they’re not a danger. The rest of the time, he’s a really charming young man. He’s smart, thoughtful and has a wicked sense of humour, and is great with children and adults.”
The Shuswap Children’s Association played a big role in helping Monica and Kameron get this far, she adds. “If it were not for the help of the association, he wouldn’t be where he is now,” she says. “They are such a great resource and support.”
But Monica, who has become active in combating the stigma around mental illness and advocating for services, sees a disturbing trend.
“The services aren’t what they used to be,” she says. ”Now it’s about waitlists and trying to find other solutions, because help isn’t there.”
Jason Gordon of the B.C. Association for Child Development and Intervention confirms that wait times are growing and services are under increasing pressure.
The association’s 30 member agencies deliver services to families across the province. Members raise funds in their communities, but are dependent on provincial government support for the bulk of their funding. Since 2009, provincial funding has been effectively frozen while operating costs have continued to increase.
“The research is clear that failing to provide funding for these health services is going to cost us much more in the future, and harm families and communities,” Gordon says.
Monica agrees: “They’re supporting families. They’re changing lives. There needs to be money in place.”
How you can help: Learn more about child development and early intervention in British Columbia at www.bcacdi.org, and how to support the Shuswap Children’s Association at www.shuswapchildrens.ca. The B.C. Association for Child Development and Intervention represents 30 agencies that deliver services to 15,000 children and youth.