Jennifer Spong: Center is vital to children with mental illness - The Buffalo News

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Jennifer Spong: Center is vital to children with mental illness

As an adult, the first time I heard Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center (WNYCPC) mentioned in conversation, a colleague was declaring it was where one of our seventh- grade students belonged. Since I was a first-year teacher and my colleague was a veteran, I bit my tongue. Hard.

But since I was in seventh grade when I was placed in WNYCPC, what I wanted to do, even then, nine years after discharge, was explain the horrors of being locked up. Of not having access to fresh air or a phone or food or your room anytime you wanted it. Of living your life on the approval and acquiescence of a staff that monitored your movements, literally, 24 hours a day. Of listening to screams for assistance from fellow patients, as they were in the throes of an episode requiring them to be shackled to a bed for hours at a time. Of yourself being in the midst of crisis: the inhumanity of being restrained in a rubber room while a nurse gave you a shot that you knew would bring relief, but fought like hell to avoid anyway. But like I said, I bit my tongue.

I’m not sure at what point in the last seven years my opinion of my time at WNYCPC changed, but I know I’ve been thinking about it a lot more since the governor threatened to close the facility and force children with mental illnesses to be treated alongside adults. Maybe because of that, I stopped thinking about what I’ve accomplished in spite of WNYCPC and started focusing on what I’ve been able to achieve because of WNYCPC.

I’ve found a forever family, graduated high school and college, earned a master’s degree from Harvard, completed a certificate of advanced study in educational leadership and gotten married.

So no, I couldn’t go outside anytime I wanted, but at least there was a safe area outside for us; an area where I learned to play basketball, the sport that got me a college scholarship. And no, I didn’t have experiences like typical middle schoolers do, but we had a recreation room where I became a foosball champion, and a gym, and a full kitchen where we cooked for ourselves in the summer. I learned to juggle and painted a llama on a wall – an act of inspiration for future generations of children who would come to know, and eventually be well enough to leave, WNYCPC.

So yes, the staff watched my every move, every day, but my stay at WNYCPC was the first time in my life that I felt as if adults honestly and truly cared for me. The daily interactions with staff members like Paul and Frank, Mrs. Vaughn and Lori, taught me that people were on my side and wanted me to succeed. And my relationship with Chuck, the staff member who was my biggest cheerleader – especially when he broke my finger playing football – showed me that I, contrary to what I’d been told my whole life, had value. I mattered to them and I learned I had to matter to myself, too.

And I do now: matter. In the 16 years since I’ve left WNYCPC, I’ve accomplished great things in my personal and professional life, not despite WNYCPC, but because of it. And more than anything, I want children with mental illness to know that they, too, will be better for having had the opportunity to heal there. There’s a reason WNYCPC works: because the physical space of the facility and the emotional capacity of a uniquely trained staff are focused on what’s right for children. Don’t take that away from the population needing it the most.

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