‘Asking for help is not a bad thing’

Local mental health agencies turn their attention to Bonner County’s struggling youth

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

Around the age of 6 or 7, a doctor diagnosed Evelyn Towry on the autism spectrum. Bipolar tendencies, anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder also surfaced due to negative early school experiences.

Her mother, Spring Towry, took a difficult parenting step in an effort to get her daughter the help she needed: she sought out mental health intervention, and the family has now been clients of North Idaho Children’s Mental Health for more than a decade.

By utilizing a combination of one-on-one counseling, psychosocial rehabilitation and developmental disabilities counseling, Evelyn — now 20 years old — is able to advocate for herself and manage her mental health issues.

“This whole asking for mental health services, or even having them offered to you — the dynamic has changed quite a bit over the years,” Towry said, detailing her own negative experience being diagnosed with a learning disability as a child. She said she had some fears about getting Evelyn help because she worried her daughter would be “poorly treated or mismanaged.”

“But Victor [Brotherton-Manna] — he really, really helped me understand that that wasn’t what was going to be happening with their facility,” she said.

Brotherton-Manna co-founded NICMH with his wife, Jenny, but he died in 2013. Jenny now operates the agency, which is one of many taking part in the Bonner County Youth Mental Health Collaborative: a recently formed group aiming to make mental health resources more available to local parents. The effort is co-chaired by Joy Jansen, director of Special Education and Elementary School Counseling for the Lake Pend Oreille School District; and Dion Heller, probation manager for Bonner County Justice Services. 

Jansen and Heller created the group when both noticed that mental health struggles had begun to intensify among local children in elementary and middle school. Heller said this marked a change, as he and Jansen were more accustomed to seeing these issues among high-school students.

Bonner County children are susceptible to mental health struggles for a myriad of reasons, according to Heller, who said factors like rural living and poverty can hinder access to mental health services. He said the “North Idaho mentality of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and the idea that people can “tough it out” often causes a stigmatized view that seeking help is “weak.” Heller also said adverse childhood experiences — known among counseling professionals as ACEs — can lead to mental health issues among young people. ACEs are caused by anything traumatic experienced in childhood.

“Research does show that ACEs scores in northern Idaho are significantly higher than the rest of Idaho and the nation,” Heller said.

With a little digging, Jansen and Heller discovered that local mental health agencies were already making efforts to address this new trend.

“What we found out was that there were a lot of providers out there doing their own thing and everyone was being spread so thin,” Heller said, adding that the first goal is to get each of these entities to share ideas and strategies.

The Bonner County Youth Mental Health Collaborative also plans to make services more accessible, and to raise community awareness about the severe issue of children’s mental illness.

Providers joining forces in the effort include Bonner General Health and Behavioral Health, North Idaho Children’s/Community Mental Health, Sandpoint Psychotherapy, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Kinderhaven, LillyBrooke Family Justice Center, North Idaho Crisis Line, Panhandle Health District, Kaniksu Health Services, Sandpoint Teen Center, Bonner County Prosecutor’s Office, Bonner County judges, Head Start programs and Journey Pediatric Therapy.

“We want to end the stigma that comes from receiving any type of mental health services, and we want to acknowledge how hard it is to stand up and acknowledge the hardships that come with living with a mental illness,” said Jenny Brotherton-Manna of North Idaho Children’s Mental Health. “Our clients are brave and strong and we appreciate all they teach us everyday.”

While Evelyn has come a long way thanks to agencies like North Idaho Children’s Mental Health, Towry has another daughter, older than Evelyn, who “has been lost” to Towry due to mental illness despite Towry’s best efforts to get her the mental health intervention she needs. Towry is now raising her grandchild — the daughter of her eldest daughter — because her older daughter’s mental health struggles make it so she is unable to care for the girl herself.

“I think that a lot of people feel like — especially myself, who has more than one child who has some sort of a mental health issue — that maybe it’s my fault,” Towry said. “It isn’t your fault, and it isn’t my fault, or any other parent’s fault that their child has mental health issues. That is a really difficult thing.” 

She said the first step to getting past those beliefs is to stop asking “why,” and begin asking “what will help my child?”

“If you kill yourself on the ‘why’ — which, that’s what I’ve done over the years, ‘why, why, why’ — you’re never going to focus on what your child needs. Just skip that part. Skip that completely, because you’re never going to find out,” Towry said. 

She said the best thing a parent can do is rise to the challenge with skills acquired through some outside help.

“You just need to learn how to parent a little bit differently, and that’s what these mental health facilities can do for us,” Towry said.

Evelyn Towry is an example of the positive outcomes that can follow childhood mental health intervention.

“I’ve taught her and given her the tools to understand that asking for help is not a bad thing,” Towry said. “That’s probably one of my biggest accomplishments in life, is that I have helped somebody who probably could have been swept under the rug if her parents didn’t want to seek help for her.”

It’s a lesson in parenting that Towry hopes she can pass on to others.

“I want parents to let their children know they are their biggest advocate,” she said. “I will go to bat for my daughter — I don’t fight her battles for her, but I will always support her and advocate for her. I am her biggest fan, and she is one of my heroes. She faces generations of social dogma that needs to be changed. It can be changed with advocacy and tools like therapy and counseling.”

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