By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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United Parents Serves Children with Mental, Emotional and Behavioral Challenges

Your Health Connection Magazine 2011

IMAGINE A MOTHER TRYING TO COMFORT A 6-YEAR-OLD WHO WANTS TO DIE FOR NO APPARENT REASON; OR A FATHER STRIVING TO UNDERSTAND A KINDERGARTEN STUDENT KICKED OUT OF THREE SCHOOLS DUE TO POOR BEHAVIOR; OR PARENTS WORKING TO HELP A BIPOLAR 15-YEAR-OLD WHO REFUSES MEDICATION, IS HYPERSEXUAL AND HAS NO FEAR OF PREGNANCY OR DISEASE.

“WHEN YOU ARE A PARENT OF ONE OF THOSE KIDS, YOU ARE TOLD A GREAT DEAL OF THINGS BY PROFESSIONALS WHO HAVE ASSESSED YOUR CHILD; they are trying to make you understand that the chemicals in their brain don’t function normally,” said Mary Ellen Collins of Camarillo, executive director of United Parents, a nonprofit organization that assists children with mental health, emotional and behavioral disorders.

“You don’t understand it all yet, but you know your life has just changed — your dreams for your child are changed,” Collins continued. “There is guilt, denial, anger, depression and hopefully acceptance. It may take parents years to adjust their expectations and understand the full ramifications of having a seriously emotionally disturbed child.”

This may involve getting to work late every day, leaving work when the school calls, enduring pressure to make a child behave by teachers and professionals, or traveling to psychiatric appointments and parent workshops instead of PTA meetings, baseball games and Girl Scout gatherings.

“Trying to explain you are not a bad parent ... the constant strain of time spent learning new skills to help your special needs child function appropriately while struggling to meet your other children’s needs, and praying that you don’t burn out before you find the right combination of meds, therapy and lifestyle with which your child can succeed ... our parents are often isolated from others because of these very reasons,” Collins said. “Their friends, families and neighbors don’t know what to do and often blame the parent for not stepping up. Parents feel like failures.”

United Parents understands.

“We have loved, cried, struggled and found practical solutions that help our children and ourselves,” Collins said. “We develop programs to complement professional treatment to sustain the families in their home and communities. We help fight stigma and educate our parents and communities that these kids aren’t bad, just different and seek ways of working with them toward success.”

In the United States, one in 10 children and adolescents suffer from mental illnesses severe enough to cause some level of impairment ― yet, in any given year, only about one in five of these children will receive the specialty mental health services they need. Evidence compiled by the World Health Organization indicates that by the year 2020, childhood neuropsychiatric disorders will rise by more than 50 percent worldwide to become one of the five most common causes of morbidity, mortality and disability among children.

“With early intervention, these children have a greater chance to lead normal lives,” Collins said.

Launched informally in 1989 ―and incorporated in the fall of 1991 ―United Parents began in the home of Ellen and Normal Linder, who had a child with severe mental disorders.

“Ventura County Behavioral Health approached Ellen and Norm ... and saw the sorrow, struggle and burn-out families like the Linder’s faced,” Collins said. “They recognized the need for parents to be supported in their struggle to keep their family together and asked Ellen and Norm to consider starting a support group. United Parents was born.”

Now located in a 2,500-square-foot facility in Camarillo, the parent-run organization is special because of its staff, Collins said. “Our staff members have all raised challenging children. We assist parents raising children with mental, emotional and behavioral disorders by providing services and support to their families.”

It's critical that professionals working with children not minimize the crucial role of the family. United Parents has always helped parents articulate their needs to the educators, protective services workers, probation officers, mental health clinicians or judges impacting their child's life, according to Meloney Roy, director of Ventura County Behavioral Health.

“When parents become empowered and gain the skills necessary to be effective in promoting their child's welfare, everyone wins ― especially the child,” Roy said. “Parents of children with a mental illness endure not only the stigma associated with mental illness, but are tragically often the target of blame.” United Parents is “invaluable in helping families rise out of the weight the stigma imposes, so that they can effectively parent, advocate and promote the wellness of their child and future success of their family.”

For instance, monthly meetings provide a forum for families to discuss, educate and help each other based on their own experiences and knowledge. An onsite “UP Library” features more than 400 books and tapes to rent at no charge. A “Fast Track” service provides an in-home therapist who works with families that are stuck in damaging patterns. And respite care offers professional, temporary specialized childcare for clients who are under 18.

“We maintain a 24/7 phone line so parents can call after hours when they feel at wit’s end; we train parent partners to provide a practical approach in the home so therapeutic goals can be better understood and reached,” said Collins, further noting that the organization provides crisis support for children temporarily placed at a psychiatric hospital until an appropriate bed is found elsewhere. “We educate professionals and communities about our children, our lives and our perspectives to build partnerships and understanding ... we want evidence-based treatments to work in the home and community and we do what we can to move families toward recovery.”

Enter Cheryl Bryant of Oxnard, who joined United Parents about a year-and-a-half ago to find “someone that was like me to talk to” about her son's aggressive behaviors and seizures. “They didn’t sugar coat anything, they are the real deal,” Bryant said. “United Parents has had a positive impact on my child ... today, he is better at communicating and understanding, and my son checks on me and my welfare.”

To date, United Parents has a mailing list of more than 1,800 families as well as several hundred professionals. Since July of 2009, the organization has provided more than 300 families with specific program services, hosted 36 support groups, provided educational advocacy to 93 parents, answered about 160 calls from frustrated parents and taught 14 workshops.

“We try to help anyone that needs it,” said Collins, adding that there are no membership fees to be a part of United Parents. “Our goal is to help keep children where they have the best chance of success ― in their home and community. We want families to commit to doing whatever it takes with our help and the help of others, to work toward recovery and the best life possible.”

For more information about United Parents, call 805.384.1555
or email uniparents@unitedparents.org.
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