By Samantha Costa
April 28, 2015

Tracy and Terry Greenberg wake up each day, unsure how it will unfold. At age 12, their oldest son Bryce has a slew of mental health diagnoses, including ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and autism spectrum disorder.

“My son looks like everyone else. He’s loving, sweet, kind and adorable,” Tracy says.

Bryce loves video games, jumping on his trampoline, playing with his dog Griffin and riding his scooter. He’s the epitome of boyhood.

When they adopted Bryce as an infant, the Greenbergs knew his biological parents had a history of drug abuse and mental illness. But they assumed everything would be OK. The first 12 months, he was a textbook baby, Terry says. “Everything you’d expect as far as milestones … he was right on point. He was a relatively early walker at 10 months, and he slept well,” Terry recalls.

The First Sign of Trouble

At 18 months, the night terrors began. Bryce awoke in the middle of the night and didn't recognize his parents. Sometimes he wouldn’t get into bed at all and often laid under the bathroom sink. In preschool, he wouldn’t sing along or clap during music class like the other children his age, so Terry and Tracy took him to a new preschool.

“That’s when things started going south very fast,” Terry says.

They sought the help of a psychologist, who diagnosed Bryce with ADHD and a mood disorder.

The preschool then asked that Bryce leave the school because of his severe tantrums. Tracy took a leave of absence from work, and things continued to spiral downhill.

“I remember getting the first report from the psychiatrist before he began kindergarten, and it said he wasn’t going to be able to go to kindergarten without medication,” Tracy says. She was devastated.

The nonstop tantrums were worse with Bryce than his brother, Cole, 16 months younger, who was also adopted from a family with a history of drug abuse. The Greenbergs often left full shopping carts at the grocery store and walked out of countless restaurants in the middle of dinner. Typical punishments weren’t working, and Tracy found herself ridiculed by other parents and even family members.

“People think it’s a lack of parenting," she says. "You feel very isolated and alone because everybody thinks you’re doing something wrong.”

The Decision to Hospitalize

In 2009, Bryce had a violent outburst while friends were visiting their home in North Potomac, Maryland. The Greenbergs made the painful decision to take him to the emergency room. The only hospital that would accept him due to his age was located in Virginia.

Did they make the right choice? Terry says he went over the decision in his mind "over and over again."

Dr. Meena Vimalananda, a psychiatrist and medical director of child and adolescent services atSheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, Maryland, says guilt is common among parents who admit a child to inpatient care. “One of the things we tell families all the time is that this is not a forever situation. The crisis by definition is just a crisis,” Vimalananda says.

However, the first hospitalization didn’t work, Terry says. By the summer after first grade, Bryce continued to deteriorate.

“He was attacking me at least three times a day,” Tracy says.

Her goal was to get him into the second grade, but the stress from the first day of school set him over the edge.

Later at home that day, Bryce took a mirror off of the wall, threw it and ran out of the house. Tracy followed him, and Bryce threatened to hit her. He banged on neighbors’ doors and fences. He even attempted to climb into the sewers and made suicidal threats.

Terry and Tracy managed to get him into the car and went straight to the ER. He was admitted to apsychiatric hospital for 45 days – this time in Pennsylvania, two hours away.

“I felt like I failed him because here I adopted a child and now I had to send him away,” Tracy says.

Bryce was hospitalized several more times – twice per year from ages 7 to 10, and again most recently in February. “It’s hard emotionally, and draining,” says Tracy, explaining that their friends and family often don't know how to approach them.

“When a child is sick or has cancer, people go out of their way to make dinners for the family and do whatever they can. They rally a support system," Terry says. "With this, you get none of that. You are completely isolated and alone. When children have cancer, the parents can be at their bedside 24 hours a day. In a psychiatric hospital, you get only one hour per day.”

How Parents Can Cope

Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness's Child and Adolescent Action Center in Arlington, Virginia, says parents who have children with a mental illness should trust their instincts when it comes to seeking help.

“Find support in the community that you need,” she says. “Learn as much as you can about your child’s condition; research the best and most effective treatments and how to be the best advocate for your child.”

She also advises to not be afraid about what you might learn: "The more educated and informed you are, the better the end result.”

When it comes to interventions, Gruttadaro says parents should ask the following questions:

  • Is there research that supports this intervention?
  • What do you expect the results to be from this treatment? What is the time frame for changes?
  • What are the benefits and risks?
  • What is the goal of the treatment plan?

Dr. John Boronow, a psychiatrist and medical director of adult services at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, says a psychiatric social worker can often offer guidance for families experiencing a mental health crisis.

“I would certainly encourage people to see a psychiatric social worker interested in chronic mental illness who can be a coach for the family and give them some good advice as to when they should do what – in terms of escalating the treatment process,” Boronow says.

Today, Tracy says life isn't perfect, but the family is coping better. Bryce now attends The Frost School, a year-round special education school supported by the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Rockville, Maryland, where he has matured and is exposed to smaller classrooms with professionals who know how to work with him. “Our lives have gotten better gradually,” Tracy says.

Tracy started working part-time recently and finally feels like she can breathe a little easier. What's more, the Greenbergs have learned to become their child’s best advocate, despite the stigma attached to having a mental illness in the family.

In online support groups, Tracy says people often tell her how brave she is.

“I’m not brave. I have a kid that has an illness [I want to help]," she says. "That doesn’t make me brave – that makes me a mom."

Coping With a Mental Health Crisis in the Family [U.S. News & World Report]