The last thing Susanne Mills Tripp needed to hear when she was trying to cope with her child’s behavioural problems was that it was her fault.
But when she tried to get guidance and help from her son’s Alberta school last year, that’s what she was confronted with.
“The school parish priest told us Liam’s mental health issues were due to our sins as parents,” said Mills Tripp, who grew up in St. John’s, but now lives in Okotoks, Alta.
She said they always had issues with him — violent outbursts, rage, spitting — but they didn’t know what was going on until after he started school.
“Liam was not tolerating being around other children and we would get phone calls daily from the school regarding aggression and outbursts. Liam did not fit in and was unable to make any friends. He was never even invited to a birthday party,” she told The Telegram in a recent interview.
Not long after entering kindergarten, the then five-year-old was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).
Mills Tripp said officials and educators at the Catholic school assured them Liam would be taken care of, but for four months there was no change.
Out of desperation, she said, they decided to have Liam baptized, thinking it might help.
It only made matters worse, she said when they were blamed and told the child’s issues were because of Satan.
“It’s almost laughable now,” she said.
Mills Tripp contacted The Telegram after reading a similar story published in the paper last Saturday, about Zachary and Christina Adams.
Seven-year-old Zachary was suspended from St. Andrew’s Elementary in St. John’s in January after a violent outburst towards a student and teachers.
Since that time the school put him on reduced days, which meant he missed half of his educational time for about five months.
During a recent meeting with the school, Adams told The Telegram that officials told her that when he returns to school in September he will again be on reduced days.
Mills Tripp said reading about Zachary’s situation made her heart sink, having lived through the same turmoil.
She wanted to share her success story.
“These children, like Liam and Zachary, should be allowed participation in the activities that their classmates are engaging in,” she said.
“Children have the right to an education in the same environment as their peers and it is the school’s responsibility to ensure the proper supports and modifications are in place to allow this.”
In January, something happened at the school regarding Liam’s medication and he ended up in emergency, she said.
That’s when they found out not only was their son not getting the care he was supposed to, but he was being segregated from other children and wasn’t allowed to play with them during breaks she said
Mills Tripp said it was a very low point for the family.
“The physician asked him if he was happy and he told the doctor he wasn’t because, ‘I’m not allowed to play with the other kids outside.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ He said, ‘because I thought I was bad,’” said Mills Tripp.
It was then Liam’s parents decided to remove him from the Catholic school system and put him in the public education system.
“We then became more aware, and with eyes open started to advocate for our child. I contacted the president of (Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada), Heidi Bernhardt, and she advocated for us,” she said, adding Liam has also been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Mills Tripp said since he was moved he is happy, healthy and thriving.
“When I picked Liam up within the first week of his new school he was beaming and smiling. He said, ‘Momma, I got to go to gym,’” she said excitedly.
“They provide him with the supports he needs to be successful and happy in that environment. They accept Liam for who he is. The public needs to be aware and educated about various mental health issues, and that these kids do not ask for these conditions.”
Bernhardt, who has a background in psychiatric nursing, is the mother of three grown sons with ADHD.
She told The Telegram in a recent interview the first thing people need to understand is it is a mental health condition that needs to be taken seriously as a medical issue.
“We know it’s a worldwide neurobiological disorder — how the brain functions — recognized by medical associations, and we have decades of research. Yet there are still naysayers because there isn’t a blood test to determine it,” said Bernhardt.
“It is really insidious in people’s lives. They really struggle and have difficulty, and people who don’t understand it say they are lazy and not trying very hard, so they get mislabelled and stigmatized,” she said.
Getting the medical diagnosis, which can take several months because of waitlists to see a specialist, is the first step, she suggested.
“The other big piece of the puzzle is schools knowing what to do about it,” she said.
“Very often there is very little knowledge, understanding and educational training that goes on with these educators about kids who have these problems, and then it is the knee-jerk reaction of suspending them or keeping them out of school in order to deal with their behaviour,” said Bernhardt, who also read The Telegram story about Zachary.
She said boards and schools need to spend more time educating educators to help them get a true understanding of what it is and to put plans and accommodations in place.
“It is not the child being defiant or lazy. It is a true medical disorder and we find with educators, when they get that cognitive shift they view it differently and they also treat the child differently,” said Bernhardt.
“To be fair, these kids can be demanding and if educators aren’t trained, it is difficult to figure out.”
• ADHD is a neurobiological disorder, included in the field of mental health
• ADHD conservatively occurs in 4 per cent of adults and 5 per cent of children worldwide
• 80 per cent of children maintain their diagnosis into adolescence
• 60 per cent are still affected by core symptoms in adulthood
• Research shows that ADHD is most often inherited