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Finding Her Voice to Break the Mental Health Stigma

Patients

Kate

Never underestimate the power of an 11-year-old girl on a mission.

Kate, a bright-eyed sixth grader with a dark blonde pixie cut, patiently answers obligatory “get-to-know-you” questions including her favorite subject (drama), favorite singer (Harry Styles, at least for now) and career aspirations (TV and movie actress). The conversation quickly turns serious as Kate describes what she is most passionate about in life.

“I want to break the stigma of mental health. Stigma makes it hard to know who else has a mental health condition,” she says. “It’s not like you walk into a room and you're like, ‘Hey, I'm Kate and this is what's going on with me.’ It's not like that. It's invisible.”

Kate receives psychiatric services and occupational therapy at the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado for anxiety, sensory integration disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It was during a visit there she first encountered the word “stigma” and learned its meaning. 

“I saw a banner at Children’s Colorado that said, ‘Help us break the stigma.’ I asked my mom, ‘What’s stigma?’ She told me what it meant, and I thought it was so sad that people feel ashamed for this.” Kate says. “We should all be able to talk about it. When there’s a stigma, then people are less willing to talk about their feelings, and that could mean more suicide attempts.”

The Day That Changed Everything

In elementary school, Kate experienced relentless bullying by a small group of classmates, despite her parent’s best efforts to intervene. After a particularly upsetting incident on Valentine’s Day, Kate revealed to her mom, Hope, that she didn’t want to be alive anymore. Kate was 9 years old at the time. 

Hope took Kate to Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Emergency Department for a psychiatric evaluation.

“I remember thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to me?’” Kate says.

Fortunately, Kate received the help she needed before her thoughts turned into a potentially devastating action. Before she was discharged to return home, mental health specialists at Children’s Colorado worked with Kate’s parents to create a plan to help keep her safe.

It’s been two years since the Valentine’s Day incident, and things have been going well for Kate as she continues to manage her conditions with the help of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute. She particularly enjoys the occupational therapy gym, where she learns strategies to manage the restlessness that comes with her conditions, among other coping tools for everyday life. What’s more, Kate is now using the strength and purpose she gleaned from her own challenges to help other kids who are struggling.

Speaking Up For Change

“I want to try to mend the broken mental health system, and I want to be an inspiration for other kids who don’t know how to get help. I want to help them find their voice to speak up,” Kate says.

Kate’s journey has been strengthened by the unwavering support of her parents and younger sister, Lucy. For the past few years, Kate’s mother Hope has served on Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Parent Advisory Council for mental health.

“For our family, Kate’s willingness to embrace her story and break the stigma has made us really open to talking about mental health,” says her dad, Mike.

In 2019, Kate turned her aspirations into action when she shared her story with medical students and residents at Children’s Colorado as part of a medical education series. She then took her story to the Colorado State Capitol. There, Kate addressed the state Senate Health and Human Services Committee to share her support for a youth mental health bill that ultimately passed.

Kate recalls that early spring day as one of her proudest moments and is looking forward to more opportunities to share her story and help others. 

“I believe that everybody is on this planet to try to make it a better place for others,” she says. “When I spoke to the Senate, I realized this is what I am meant to do.”

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