Guest Column

Dear Tom Cruise: Meet My Daughter

by Morton Sherman

Dear Tom Cruise: I want you to meet my daughter. Rachel is a beautiful 22-year-old who has struggled for years with depression.

Yes, Mr. Cruise, she exercised. She took her vitamins. She did her homework. She had lots of friends. We talked to her and knew what was going on in her life.

Yet, when she was 15 years old, Rachel tried to commit suicide.

A Shocking Discovery
Now why in the world would I address this letter to Tom Cruise and share this personal information with a national audience of educators? Because, as with my colleagues, I care about the health and welfare of the children of this country, because suicide is the third leading cause of death among the adolescents we serve and because I am tired of folks ignoring the reality of mental health issues.

When Rachel was first diagnosed with depression, we tried to do all the right things. She went to therapy and took her meds, and we worked hard to keep her life together. She was on her high school’s basketball team and the softball team and sang in the school’s leading choruses. Yet by January of her sophomore year, she was diagnosed as having an eating disorder, being clinically depressed and being suicidal.

Hearing these diagnoses was shocking to our family. I am a school district superintendent, my wife is a remarkable special education teacher, and we thought that all of our daughters were happy, engaged and active children. We certainly wondered what we had done wrong. We were convinced that all of this would pass quickly and we would get back our All- American daughter in just a few weeks.

Such was not the case. By the end of May, Rachel was on a 24-hour suicide watch. In June, she tried to take her life.

Yes, Mr. Cruise, she had taken her vitamins and did her exercise.

We almost lost a child.

A Dangerous Stigma
In the months and weeks that followed, we learned that we were not alone. Other families struggled with depressed children. Other families lost their children to suicide.

We began to speak honestly and openly about our experience and about what we knew. We worked hard as a family to deal with these issues, and Rachel began to speak publicly about what she had gone through and what she was still dealing with every day of her life. Rachel continued her medications, went to regular sessions with her doctors and put into practice what she was learning through cognitive therapy.

We found out that mental health issues have a stigma about them that keeps families from getting help for their children. We learned that most school professionals are not well informed or trained well enough to know what to do for depressed children and their families. We have learned that schools have little in the way of curriculum, policy or practice to deal with mental health issues.

One of the most startling facts that we learned is that most children who are depressed do not get the help they need. At first we thought this might be a result of a shortage of mental health professionals or because there are financial obstacles to obtaining appropriate care.

What we have learned is that many families and schools follow the “Suck it up” mentality that we hear on late night talk shows or they follow narrow, uninformed and dangerous conventional wisdom.

During last spring’s congressional hearings in Washington, D.C., in support of the Presidential Commission’s Report on Mental Health, we heard stories from other families across America. The tales were similar in so many ways. Families had to overcome stigma from their friends and even their relatives. Few supports in the community were available. Ken Duckworth, medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, spoke about the amazing finding that some are experiencing: The head is not separate from the body.

When a child breaks a leg, we put a cast on it. When we have a headache, we take aspirin. When the flu season starts to break out, we all run for shots. So must it be for the mental health of our children.

Moving Ahead
The lessons we learn from Rachel are profound. She has taught us about strength, about what is important in life and about getting help and moving ahead. A little over a year ago, she was diagnosed as having an angiosarcoma in her left breast. Surgery and reconstruction have put her back on the road to physical health. We are convinced the cognitive skills she learned have helped her through this most recent challenge.

As educational leaders, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to lead the conversation forward in our schools and communities. I ask you to join our family in letting our children hear our daughter Rachel’s message that they are not alone and that there is help.

Morton Sherman is superintendent of the Tenafly Public Schools, 500 Tenafly Road, Tenafly, NJ 07670. E-mail: msherman@tenafly.k12.nj.us