Vickroy: Just try to find help for mentally ill child
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy October 17, 2012 3:46PM
Laura Lauzen-Collins, a professor at Moraine Valley Community College, talks about her son, Jeremy Browning, at her office at the school in Palos Hills, IL on Wednesday, October 10, 2012. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 19, 2012 1:07PM
The worst came after the crisis — after she found him unconscious, foaming at the mouth, snoring so loudly she could hear the rasps outside the building.
He was taken in an ambulance, put on a ventilator and treated for an overdose. When he awoke, he said he wished he’d taken a different drug, that maybe then he’d have been successful.
It was three days after her 14-year-old son’s suicide attempt that Laura Lauzen-Collins experienced her worst moment: Hospital staff told her they were going to release him because he was no longer an active threat.
“That was the most terrified I’ve been through this whole thing,” Lauzen-Collins said. “I didn’t know if I could keep him safe, and I didn’t want to lose him.”
When he was just 2, Jeremy Browning would ask questions about death and the afterlife. He would see improbable things with vivid intensity and shout, “Mom, there’s a polar bear, let’s chase it.”
He had an advanced vocabulary and the attention span of an adult reader, listening for long periods while his mother read aloud.
“Early on, I knew he was different,” Lauzen-Collins said. “Children at age 3 do not have the self-awareness to say they hate themselves.”
It wasn’t until Jeremy, the oldest of five, started school that Lauzen-Collins, who teaches psychology at Moraine Valley Community College and DePaul University, realized that this kind of different was not only problematic, it was dangerous.
Jeremy’s differences quickly made him a target of bullies. He was stabbed with pencils, pushed into lockers, threatened, belittled and pelted with dirty toilet paper in the bathroom. By the end of sixth grade, Lauzen-Collins said, he constantly was talking about suicide. He had difficulty sleeping and would go to bed with the lights blazing.
Lauzen-Collins said her son moved under the radar in the public school setting. In third grade, during a parent-teacher conference, she noticed one of Jeremy’s assignments. It read, “I’m thankful to my mom because she told me why I shouldn’t kill myself.”
Montessori School was better but proved to be too expensive. Lauzen-Collins, whose husband has lupus and isn’t able to work, started homeschooling.
Then one day in January, she gave a speech on schizophrenia to Jeremy’s homeschool literary group.
Afterward, then-13-year-old Jeremy told her she’d been describing him. He said he’d been having hallucinations, that he’d been suffering blackouts during which he wasn’t aware of what he was doing and that he didn’t feel safe.
Schizophrenia in children is extremely rare, Lauzen-Collins said. It’s diagnosed in 1 in 100 adults, but only 1 in 40,000 children are believed to have the condition.
Lauzen-Collins, who has a doctorate in psychology, sought a simpler explanation.
“I didn’t recognize it as schizophrenia,” she said. She hoped her son was precocious or just different. She hoped he’d grow out of it.
The day after his self-diagnosis, Jeremy’s counselor had him admitted to a suburban rehabilitation facility that specializes in treating food and bipolar disorders.
“That didn’t work. Once he got out, he started spiraling down,” Lauzen-Collins said.
In March, when he was hospitalized again, he told doctors he “was in the matrix.” He said voices were telling him to hurt himself and to hurt others. He also said he knew the voices were wrong and that he didn’t want to hurt anybody. The internal conflict tore him apart. He talked about stepping into traffic.
From January to June, 20 different medications were tried, Lauzen-Collins said. None worked, but doctors told the family it could take nine to 12 months for one to kick in. Some of the meds made him sleepy; some catatonic. Some caused his facial muscles to freeze up, making speech difficult and painful.
Lauzen-Collins, whose expertise is in social and health psychology, not clinical, said, “I didn’t know what the psychiatric world had in store for him.”
Still, the Bolingbrook resident did what so many parents of children with mental illness must do — she entered a lonely world of confusion and contradiction.
“There is no central resource for getting information about treatments, medications and residential admissions,” she said.
Even harder to find, she said, is information about how to pay for it. But if you know where to look and what to ask and are persistent, you can stumble across little-known laws, exceptions to rules and pockets of financial assistance.
“I felt like I’d been dumped into the middle of an ocean,” she said. “How do families in crisis do this under the gun?”
Finally, she turned to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which she said helped tremendously.
John Rowley, past president of the south suburban chapter, said the system is so difficult to navigate because of severe funding cuts and society’s unwillingness to value mental health care.
“Unless you are personally hit by it, people don’t want to know about it. They’re fearful,” he said. “What these kids and adults need in most cases is a combination of therapy and medication. But it’s getting harder and harder to get help.”
At the end of June, Lauzen-Collins placed Jeremy at a residential center in Utah.
“Five hundred dollars a day,” she said. “That’s what they charge. Who has $500 a day?”
At first she was told insurance would not pay for it. Then she learned that the policy she has through MUCC is a self-insured pool, meaning its holders can choose what conditions and procedures they want to cover. Still, the coverage is limited. So she put up a website, asking for donations. She and friends hastily threw together a fundraiser. The result is enough money to keep him there through October, which is not long enough.
The predicament compelled her to share Jeremy’s story.
“It’s a trade-off,” she said. “I want to protect his privacy, but as long as no one talks about this, no one will know about it and nothing will get better.”
The outlook for children with schizophrenia is worse than for adults. However, patients such as Jeremy who are aware that they are mentally ill have the best chance of surviving and controlling their disorder, Lauzen-Collins said.
For now, she said, Jeremy is safe. He needs to learn new coping skills, and doctors need to find an effective medication. Then, she added, her son will be able to return home.
“Mental illness is treatable, it’s something you can live with,” she said. “There is nothing to be ashamed of.”
What is shameful, she said, are the obscure paths patients and their families must travel to find the few resources that are out there.
To read more of Jeremy’s story
or donate to his care, visit