Kirsten Pelzer-Clark: The Last Straw

January 13, 2023

My family is no stranger to the impact mental health issues have on a home. 

Ten years ago, my husband gained full custody of his nine-year-old son. Though my husband’s relationship with his ex-wife felt unsalvageable, his son maintained a relationship with his mom. 

However, between the custody battle and the constant bi-weekly move from home to home, our son’s mental health deteriorated. 

Instead of opening up to us, our son locked himself in his room. He also became defiant in the classroom, refusing to do his work or connect with his peers and teachers. Throughout these moments, our son found refuge with his mother, who also suffered from mental health issues. As she suffered from the impact of her own mental health issues, she worsened our son’s. She verbally accused him of not reaching his potential because he lived with his father and me.

At this time, my soon-to-be husband and I were only dating. Yet, I stepped up to support both him and his son. I found endless resources like therapists and school counselors for our son to talk to about his mental health. We connected him with a good psychiatrist who diagnosed him with attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and helped him start medication for both his behavioral and mental health disorders. To support his academics, I advocated for my son to receive additional services through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). I worked to become a mother figure, providing endless love and compassion for a child that, though wasn’t mine by blood, was mine through love. 

Things were looking up for our son, but I won’t negate my mental health suffered throughout this experience. I was physically and mentally exhausted by the hours and minutes I spent researching supports for my son. And the constant battles between my husband’s ex-wife and our small household caused stress in our relationship. 

But one straw broke the camel’s back; our son’s mother had another son. While he only briefly verbalized his feelings, I could tell that his mother’s new addition made our son feel abandoned. In response, our son began running away from home, at first for a few hours at a time, then a few days, and once for a few months. 

My husband and I did all we could to support our son through this experience, but we had little to no help from the school system. Most of the support we found was outside our neighborhood, sometimes from other states, and they all cost money. When we connected with the school on mental health resources, they were only brief conversations with counselors. However, these moments felt like a brief outlet for our pain, never followed up with actual resources we needed to better our son. 

Today, our son is doing much better, living here in the District and studying as a full-time Job Corps student at the Potomac Job Corps Center. While this is a destination I want for him, I would never want another family to travel down the same road we needed to to get him there. 

DC’s school-based mental health (SBMH) program needs strengthening. We lack accountability that ensures families like mine receive the supports they need for their children to thrive. This means providing better oversight of our SBMH system by our District and school leaders. 

We also don’t have enough services to support whole families; our students need help, but parents need help too. I imagine creating more counseling groups for parents and caregivers of children with mental health issues. In these spaces, we can air our grievances and share knowledge about resources we can all use to benefit.

These visions are not impossible – PAVE parent leaders like me know this. Since 2018, SBMH has been selected as one of our top #ParentPriorities. Our kids are in crisis and we won’t stop advocating for them until the health and wellness of every child are prioritized.

So, I’m ready to get to work. Are you?