“I miss my perfect little girl.”

Sad BoyMental illness affects 1 in 5 children in Virginia.

1 in 5. Let’s let that sink in. Chances are you know a family who is struggling with mental health concerns.

Richmondmom sat down with Peggy Sinclair-Morris of Chesterfield, to talk about her family’s journey with mental illness. Peggy and her husband, Allen, have three children, ages 19, 15, and 11. Their oldest daughter, Rheanna, has Borderline Personality Disorder, with Bipolar Disorder. Characteristics of Borderline Personality Disorder include difficulty regulating emotions, impulsivity, and difficulty with personal relationships. Bipolar disorder includes cycles of clinical depression and mania.

Rheanna was diagnosed when she was 16, but her mother Peggy says that in hindsight, there were some early warning signs. She recalls that as a young girl, Rheanna had a significant flair for the dramatic and was sometimes emotional. Peggy says that although Rheanna was in the gifted program at school, the teachers “didn’t get her” and the program was not a good match. During parent-teacher conferences, teachers said, “She is so smart, but she isn’t working to her full potential”.

The middle school years started out bumpy. Rheanna started sleeping more, growing more distant and began writing dark poetry.

Things came to a head during Rheanna’s sophomore year, when she began dressing differently, and sometimes refused to go to school. The situation escalated when she also began injuring herself by “cutting”. Toward the end of her sophomore year, Rheanna’s behavior spiraled out of control when she had a series of hospitalizations and her first suicide attempt. Rheanna also received homebound educational services since she was unable to attend school. Since Rheanna could not be left alone at home safely, Peggy took a leave of absence from work to care for her daughter and to navigate the mental health system.

“Thankfully”, Peggy says, “at this point the Community Services Board became involved and were a helpful resource.” Peggy also reached out to other organizations. “I feel fortunate that I had contacts that could connect me with other contacts that had other contacts with various organizations. I was talking with a mom earlier today that did not have this opportunity. It can be difficult finding help to navigate the system.”

Peggy also credits the administration and Exceptional Education Department at Rheanna’s school with helping Rheanna successfully graduate from high school. Peggy says, “The Exceptional Education Department supported not only Rheanna, but also supported us as parents, by really listening to what Rheanna’s educational needs were and also by simply being emotionally supportive and compassionate.”

Now that Rheanna is 19 years old, Peggy says she is trying to step back a little. “Right now, I am her case manager. I am managing meds, and navigating the system. I need to be her mom (instead of a case manager).”

When asked how this has affected her, Peggy explains, “In times of crisis, I am on emotional autopilot. Getting Rheanna to safety, to the emergency room, waiting in the emergency room to see if she is going to be admitted, completing paperwork, all while still taking care of the rest of my family. Later, after the crisis is over, I find that I often have to backpedal to deal with the emotional aspects of things, when everything is stable. You think you have a handle on your emotions, and then realize that your feelings are sometimes hard to reconcile. Sometimes I think of her as two different people – the little girl that I remember before all this happened and who she is now.”

Peggy also remarks that it can be tough on her other kids. At first, they were frustrated at the attention Rheanna receives, but now they understand that it is necessary during times of crisis.

Peggy shares that one of the hardest things about coping with mental illness in her family is that she has the very same hopes and dreams for her child that other parents do. The grieving cycle is difficult and sometimes has ebbs and flows. She recalls that one day her husband said, “`I miss my perfect little girl’. That pretty much sums it up sometimes.”

Personal support systems can also be challenging. Sometimes friends are lost. When Peggy shares information about what their family is going through, she describes the two reactions people typically have – they are nice about it or they quickly change the subject. She tells about the experience when she shared with a friend that she was having a tough day because Rheanna had “swallowed a bunch of Tylenol” and was subsequently placed in a residential facility. Her friend replied, “Oh!” and Peggy says, “She couldn’t have run away any faster than she did.” Their relationship has since become more distant.

Peggy Sinclair-Morris
Peggy Sinclair-Morris

Peggy acknowledges that it can be awkward and that people do not know what to say. Her advice? If you find yourself in a similar conversation, think of it as if you were talking about a physical illness. If someone was physically sick in the hospital, you might offer a casserole or a gift card to help the family during that crisis. “Personally, I don’t need a casserole or a gift card. However, one thing the other person might find helpful is something like, `That must be a really hard situation you are going through. Is there anything I can do to help?’ This kind of statement validates that parent’s feelings. Mental illness needs to be treated like any other illness. The more we talk about it and the less we stop brushing it under the rug, the better. And the earlier a child receives intervention, the better the outcome,” Peggy says. “Talking about mental health fosters awareness and hopefully more children ultimately getting the help they need,” Peggy explains.

Peggy says that we are fortunate in Richmond that there is not a very long waiting list for an initial pediatric psychiatric appointment. “In other parts of Virginia, it could take more than 3 months to get an initial appointment.” Additionally, the Virginia Family Network offers support groups for families experiencing these challenges.

Part of Peggy’s journey as a mom includes becoming an advocate. Peggy explains, “I decided to get involved to try and help other families navigate a crazy system and to work on erasing stigma. I really want to pay it forward.”

And pay it forward is exactly what she is doing. Recently, she spoke at a budget committee hearing to the General Assembly on providing additional funding for mental health, specifically for youth ages 18-25. National Public Radio (NPR) also interviewed her about mental health system concerns. Paying it forward, indeed.

1 in 5 children. What child do you know that is experiencing mental health concerns? How will you help?

To learn more information about resources for pediatric mental health, check out these organizations:

Virginia Family Network (part of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Virginia)

Child and Adolescent Action Center (part of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Virginia)

1 in 5 Campaign

Strength of Us (an online community connecting young adults with mental illness)

National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health

Virginia Suicide Prevention Resource Center

Children's Mental Health Infographic