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Lessons from a mother's grief

After reading of a child's suicide, many readers say they will renew efforts to get treatment for their own troubled children.

SARA FRITZ
Published November 24, 2003

For a few hours last Sunday, my late son, Daniel Kidney, came back to life in the hearts and minds of St. Petersburg Times readers.

As a grieving mother, I was comforted by the outpouring of warm responses I received from readers of my story about my son's suicide three years ago at age 12. The article told of Daniel's emotional troubles, his apparent misdiagnosis and mistreatment, his death, and the painful lessons my family and I learned from his loss. You can see the story and some readers' comments at www.sptimes.com/daniel.

Everyone who wrote to me said they were moved by Daniel's story, and many confessed they had cried.

But the most stunning responses came from parents whose children are struggling with emotional problems similar to Daniel's. Without exception, they said they had learned a lesson from my bitter experience and would renew their efforts to get appropriate treatment for their children.

One father wrote that, like Daniel, his son, Patrick, 13, had been diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, was taking a stimulant, Adderall, and seemed to be getting more depressed. He said his family had just spent "a long, shout-filled weekend because of a disappointing report card."

"As I write this note," the father said, "I literally am shaking, out of sadness for your loss and because of a chilling realization that I have perhaps been looking past my own son's struggle. You have made me realize that I need to be a much stronger advocate for him and his care."

As a child, Daniel was unfailingly kind to other children. Because of the e-mails I have received from Times readers, I now feel that my dead son may still be helping others. As one reader said, "If affecting a positive change in someone else's life is the intention you had in committing such raw introspection about Daniel's struggles and today's parenting complexities, you have succeeded."

And that is the best result that my family and I could ask from our experience.

Daniel hanged himself on Oct. 27, 2000, after being told he could not go to a sleepover with his friends. He was taking Adderall for ADHD, and his therapist had dismissed our fears that he was depressed. We now believe he may have had early-onset bipolar disorder, perhaps caused by the stimulant.

At least 15 readers told me they have children with similar emotional problems in their family, and three others said they, too, had lost loved ones to suicide. The abundance of these stories I received from Times readers, including several on the newspaper staff, is evidence that childhood mental illness needs more attention from professionals, teachers, parents and the media.

Martha Hellander, executive director of the Child & Adolescent Bipolar Foundation (www.bpkids.org) expressed the hope that more children with emotional disorders would be treated correctly as a result of the Times' story.

"Any child with suicidal thinking, depression before puberty, high creativity (such as word play especially), daredevil acts, hypersexuality, grandiosity, severe tantrums (rages), loss of interest in things normally enjoyed, loss of concentration and focus and rapidly changeable moods (from very depressed to very high) should be considered a risk for bipolar disorder," Hellander said. "Stimulants and antidepressants can activate manic symptoms or cause akathisia, which leads to further risk of suicide."

(Akathisia is defined by mental health experts as restlessness accompanied by fidgeting movements such as shaking of the legs.)

One mother wrote that her 17-year-old daughter had hanged herself with a belt, just as Daniel did. "I live every single day of my life wondering if some of my daughter's mood swings, which I had dismissed as just being a moody teenage girl, were in fact a mental illness that was misdiagnosed," she said.

Another mother reported that her son, at the tender age of 7, is bipolar with ADHD and has tried to kill himself twice. And a third mother said she had been unaware of the symptoms of depression until a therapist "recommended hospitalization just hours before our daughter planned to take her own life."

The father whose 10-year-old girl recently was diagnosed with ADHD said he is now "inspired to greater efforts in my questioning and monitoring the therapies drugs and professionals we use."

"Our son is now 18 and things have been rapidly disintegrating over the past six months," wrote a reader in Clearwater. "Two nights ago, he broke down sobbing and told us how he almost hung himself the other night and I believe him this time. I've never seen him so sad and broken."

Although many parents may be more sensitive to their children's problems after reading Daniel's story, one reader in his 40s who survived childhood depression, ADHD and drug abuse cautioned that there is also a limit to what parents can do.

"I know from my own tormented experience that absolutely nothing that my parents could have possibly said or done differently could have altered my path of utter self-destruction," he said.

Some readers said their children were misdiagnosed by mental health professionals; others reported lives saved by a physician's intervention. "Until the health professions develop not only the competence but the courage to adequately police themselves," wrote the father of a troubled son, "patients and their families have only their own intuition to protect them."

Some readers came to a conclusion from reading about Daniel's death that all medicines are bad. But I disagree.

Although my son's Adderall may have exacerbated his problems, I believe he would have flourished on another medicine better suited to his illness. Likewise, although mental health professionals make mistakes, their advice cannot be ignored.

My husband and I are very grateful for all of your good wishes and prayers. I want to assure those of you who are worried about us and our daughter, Mary, that we are getting competent professional help to deal with our loss.

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