Together, Philly mother and son face mental health issues | Health

At two and a half years old, Elijah Tillman was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder after being kicked out of daycare. At age 5, he experienced a traumatic episode, causing post-traumatic stress disorder. At age 12, major depressive disorder was added to her list of diagnoses.

At the neighborhood school, Elijah would fight and leave the building in frustration. A security guard once stopped Elijah from using the restroom, his mother said, and the encounter turned violent.

“I’m worried about you,” Benita Tillman told her son in a recent interview. “You are not on medication. What worries me is that you’re black with three diagnoses, and you can get violent when you’re upset, and you don’t like people touching you.

“If you pass a policeman and the policeman touches you, how will you react?” she asked Elie.

Tillman’s concerns are well founded.

According to a study by the Justice Center, Council of State Governments, black children are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than Hispanic or white students when school officials have the discretion to respond. This means that black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times that of white students, according to the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Black students, who make up about 16% of school enrollment, account for 27% of those referred to law enforcement and 31% of those who have had a school-related arrest.

To reduce these risks, Tillman decided to transfer his son to a special school. He is now at High Road School in Philadelphia-Germantown, a school for children with similar emotional and learning disabilities. With a low teacher-student ratio, it offers a therapeutic environment with personal attention.

But Elijah, now 16, said he’d rather not be there.

“I want to go to a regular school with classes that only have three children,” he said. “We cannot talk to other children. If a child walks on one side of the hallway, we must walk on the other side. We have to walk against the wall and then face the wall so that the other children can pass.

“It feels like a prison to me,” he added.

Her mother was diagnosed with major depressive disorder when she was a teenager; the diagnosis changed to bipolar and anxiety disorder when she was in her twenties. Still, she said she didn’t receive proper treatment and struggled for years.

“I think the hardest thing for me as a parent was accepting (that) my son was diagnosed because I was diagnosed at 14 and I really didn’t take my sanity seriously until my son is diagnosed,” said Benita Tillman, a family facilitator for the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Services and the city’s care system. “Once he was diagnosed, I had to pull myself together because I had to lead by example. That’s how I saw it.”

A former elementary school teacher specializing in English for speakers of other languages, Benita Tillman fears her son will become another statistic in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Elijah said he stopped taking medication to treat his illnesses “because it made me feel weird”.

“It calmed me down for a while, but it made me sad because I couldn’t do anything,” Elijah said. “Like, I just didn’t want to do anything.”

As a single mother raising a teenage son, it’s been a struggle, Benita Tillman said.

“Is this a fight? Yeah, every day, but we get by,” Benita Tillman said. “He has diagnoses, I have diagnoses. When we fight – plus he’s a teenager – it’s like World War III in my house.

“It’s not easy, but we’re getting through it.”

Urban Health Media Project (UHMP) teaches high school students from diverse backgrounds how to report, write, and broadcast multimedia stories about health and social issues affecting their communities.


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