Friday, March 30, 2007

Parent Center Navigates Mental Health System - Queens (NY) Chronicle

by Kim Brown , Chronicle Correspondent

When Lorraine Jacobs lost her husband to lung cancer in 1993 she was left with 10 children to support, including a bipolar daughter. The struggle to raise an emotionally disturbed child while supporting her family inspired Jacobs to help other parents navigate the mental health system.

Today, she is the supervisor of the Parent Resource Center of Queens, part of the Mental Health Association of New York City, a nonprofit advocacy and service organization. The center moved to new offices in Elmhurst on March 1.

“I still believe the best training and education is the training we had with our own children,” Jacobs said about her staff, all of whom have children with mental health issues. “When we start talking about our own children you can see the relief come over their faces.”

The Parent Resource Center of Queens, which first opened in the Queens Children’s Psychiatric Center last October, aims to empower parents, so they will know how to advocate for their children.

But Jacobs had to find resources for her daughter on her own.

After her husband died, she became a receptionist then won a scholarship and enrolled in college. While working and pursuing a degree, her daughter, now 17, was on and off medication, in and out of the hospital and back and forth within the mental health system.

Although Jacobs struggled to help her daughter on her own, she knew there were others going through the same things.

“I just didn’t have the support. I had to write letters and find my own resources,” she said. “I thought there had to be a lot of parents out there who were lost and confused.”

As supervisor of the Parent Resource Center, Jacobs relies on her own experience to create a welcoming haven for parents.

Parents who come to the center learn to navigate the education system, to ask doctors the right questions and to tap community resources for assistance.

“The key is we help them form the questions and we help them find the right answers,” said Luz Mercado, one of three parent advocates. Her 18-year-old son was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. “No one can help them if they don’t know what they need.”

Like other staff members, Mercado didn’t know where to get help when her son was diagnosed with a mental illness. Because she knows what it is like to feel isolated and overwhelmed, Mercado has made it her mission to reach out to others.

“I can offer understanding,” she said. “Together we look at options and roll up our sleeves. I try to give parents a sense of hope.”

Mercado speaks Spanish and works with Latino parents who come to the center. Rena Au, whose 14-year-old son has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, reaches out to Chinese families.

“A lot of parents feel ashamed. They feel like this child (with mental health issues) brings shame to the family,” she said, about the Chinese community. “By understanding, they have more patience to deal with this.”

The center is also looking to hire Urdu- and Korean-speaking advocates.

In addition to making referrals, teaching parenting skills and running support groups, the staff also offers parents a respite. Since having a child with mental health issues often leaves parents no time for themselves, the center offers programs like movie outings and trips to the park.

“We help the whole family,” said Denise Filmore, a parent advocate whose son was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. “If the family situation isn’t stable, the child can’t be stable.”

Like the others, Filmore knows first hand how difficult it is to raise a child with a mental health disorder.

“You just fall apart,” she said. “You feel as though there’s nothing you can do and no one’s there to help and you can’t get information.”

Often the parents who come to the center feel as lost as Filmore once did.

At the first session many cry, but by the time they leave there is a change.

One woman Filmore helped was bipolar and raising a daughter with depression.

“I finally feel there’s hope,” she said to Filmore at the end of their session, “and one day I’m going to call you and tell you I have a home, and I’m just calling to invite you to a barbecue.”

Like the other women who are part of the staff, Filmore is still coping with her own child and leaning on others. While their lives are not easy, they know they can make changes by sharing the knowledge and information they fought for themselves.

“Each day I thank God that my son is good for that day,” Mercado said. “I understand when parents come in and tell us their stories. I’ve been there.”

The Parent Resource Center is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information call (718) 651-1960 or log on to www.mhaofnyc.org.

For counseling, addiction referral and information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, call (800) LIFENET (543-3638), for Spanish speakers, (877) AYUDESE (298-3373), for Chinese and Korean speakers, (877) 990-8585, for the hearing impaired, (212) 982-5284, for other languages, (800) LIFENET and ask for an interpreter.