Kathy Connolly: Have Hope

Headshot of Kathy Connolly

“We are forever grateful to the staff at Howard Center who have been so dedicated and compassionate with our family. Treating mental illness is a very challenging job.”

BURLINGTON, VERMONT – I am writing as a parent of a child who has received services for 20 years and as a Howard Center board member. When our son was nine, he was diagnosed with severe mental illness which subsequently contributed to a developmental disability. He is an adult now. He lives in supported housing and proudly works in our local grocery store. His success has depended largely on the remarkable services he receives from Howard Center and the strong support of his family.

Our son taught us how to view the world through a different lens. One Christmas he gave his father a box of chocolates. Every piece had a bite taken out of it. A typical reaction would be to think how inconsiderate, but he had tried a chocolate and thought, this is really good! My dad would love this! I’ll share it with him! He believed that with each bite he took.

He joined our family 32 years ago at age 21 months. Raising our older children gave us insight into what healthy development looked like. It was clear that he was not following that pattern. We adopted him knowing that he was struggling with mental illness.

When he was nine, a truck ran a red light and drove into our car as we were crossing the intersection on the way to school. Our car was totaled. Miraculously, we walked away from this accident, apparently with only minor injuries. But our son’s injury was devastating and like most mental illness, not visually obvious.

I believe that given his genetics and his early struggles that he would have been formally diagnosed with serious mental illness in time, but the accident was too much. He had a psychotic breakdown. He stopped eating, stopped sleeping, rocked back and forth in a fetal position. Our pediatrician sent us to the hospital.

He needed treatment but there were no children’s mental health services at the hospital, and no emergency beds available. We waited 3 days for an emergency bed. It was terrifying. The silver lining of that experience was that at the hospital, we were connected with the staff at Howard Center’s First Call program. Howard Center became our lifeline.

His teen years were turbulent as his hormones kicked in and his body went through rapid physical changes. Our skinny little son who missed 2 growth spurts suddenly grew to be 6‘4”. Remarkably skilled teachers at Howard Center’s Baird school and other agencies helped him learn self-control and coping techniques. He attended SUCCEED, an aptly named Howard Center program to develop life skills for independent living.

At times we felt great sadness and despair and wondered what would happen to him as an adult. I remember meeting with Howard Center’s CEO, Bob Bick, and asking him for insight. He encouraged me to have hope. And he was right.

When you have a child who is diagnosed with a mental illness you grieve the child you lost and fall in love with the child you have. His care through Howard Center helped us heal and taught family members how to help him. Every staff member was professional, compassionate, skilled, kind, innovative, dedicated, and strong. We became part of a team consisting of a case manager, counselor, psychiatrist, residential support, therapeutic school, vocational support, and home care.

Today our son is a success story. We have 15 grandchildren, and he is everyone’s favorite uncle. He attends their soccer and ball games and school events. He lives in a supported environment with staff. He sometimes uses Howard Center’s Safety Connection to be able to stay in his apartment independently. The agency’s Project Hire program helps him with his job in our community grocery store.

He loves his job. He is friendly, helpful, and consistently gets good reviews. He pays taxes. He navigates public transportation. He uses the library, the parks, and the YMCA. He participates in Special Olympics all year. He is a kind person. When he was younger, we saw glimpses of the beautiful person trapped inside. Now that person shines every day.

We are forever grateful to the staff at Howard Center who have been so dedicated and compassionate with our family. Treating mental illness is a very challenging job. The pay has always been pitifully low and far below similar salaries for the same jobs in the hospital, schools, and at the state level. Retention and recruiting have always been a problem. And the pandemic and current workforce shortage have damaged the mental health of our gifted social workers. They have been terribly overworked, sometimes covering 2 and 3 positions for which there are few replacements. In many cases they leave to protect their own mental health.

High community needs and limited funding are straining our mental health care system, and our remaining workforce is exhausted. For the benefit of the entire community, we need to invest in making our community-based mental health care system sustainable. We need to support market rate salaries commensurate with our state, school, and hospital employees. And we need to adjust Medicaid reimbursement rates and provide loan forgiveness for these dedicated and compassionate healthcare workers. We know how to treat mental illness in Vermont.

We are a model for other states. Now more than ever we need to adequately fund that effort. We need to strengthen our mental health, substance use, and developmental disabilities agencies so that every family in need has an opportunity to hope.