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Mental illness is not a choice

By Patte Smith

Graphic logo Healing Our Youth Get Educated

In January, the Healing Our Youth – Get Educated symposium was held at Cresthill Middle School in Highlands Ranch. Hosted by the Douglas County Special Education Advisory Committee and sponsored by Highlands Behavioral Health System, the event was profoundly moving, alarming, motivating and educational. Mental health care professionals, physicians and parents presented personal stories, explained specifically what a mental disorder is and informed the audience about early intervention.

“Mental illness is NOT a choice; it is a disorder,” was the mantra emphasized over and over by the speakers. Parent presenters, whose lives have been touched by children with mental disorders, candidly shared their heart-wrenching stories. They were forthright in admitting they were unaware or ignored symptoms, assuming their children’s behavior was normal.

One courageous speaker, a mom, told the story of her son who has separation anxiety. In third grade he was not sleeping and had temper outbursts. She did not follow up and seek help. He seemed normal for a few years and then in eighth grade his personality changed. “He started cutting himself, taking off from school, sleeping in parks and exhibiting other unusual behaviors. He was not the boy we knew,” she said. “This continued throughout his high school years, and later he attempted suicide and also went to jail.” The agony she felt was palpable, but it did not stop her from sharing her family’s story to the audience of parents, teachers, school staff and community members. Her goal was to get the word out that, “he did not choose this way of life deliberately. He had a mental disorder.”

“Stigma is another reason for not seeking help – whether it be the child or the parent,” a physician explained. “If a child’s heart stopped beating a parent would call 911. Realize that mental disorders are akin to cancer, diabetes and heart disease. They are an illness. It is not a chosen way of life for anyone.” Many people look down on those with mental illness and feel the individual is to blame. Take note again, a mental disorder is not a choice, it is an illness. This fact needs to be realized by individuals, communities, states, the nation and the world.

“Early intervention is key to helping these young people,” the presenters stressed. “Take action. Sometimes symptoms of a mental disorder are infrequent and seem to go away. Years later the symptoms can reappear. If a parent or guardian is unsure, do not wait. Seek help. Contact a mental health professional or your medical doctor.”

Healing Our Youth – Get Educated is an organization of individuals who joined together in 2014 to educate the public about the stigma surrounding mental disorders. Their goal is to increase mental health education in schools and communities, emphasize the importance of early diagnoses and treatment, and reduce the number of suicides. Public education of mental disorders is key to their mission.

For more information, visit For resources, click the After Program Take Home Information tab. There is a wealth of information. If interested in holding a Heal Our Youth – Get Educated event, click Get Involved.

Other resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255, 24 hours a day,
7 days a week.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):
NAMI Colorado:



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