Layton mother's mission: Give children with mental illness normal lives

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LAYTON — The love and fun are plain to see at the Pierce home in Layton as Alex and Hannah sit at the kitchen table with their mother playing their favorite board game. Amidst shouts of glee and silly faces lurks a silent ailment: mental illness.

"We kind of refer to it as the invisible illness," said their mother Wendi Pierce. "Just looking at them, they look absolutely normal, so the expectations are that they will react in a normal way."

She adopted 11-year-old Alex when he was 3 days old. He's bright, loves his cat, and wants to be a scientist, but making and keeping friends at school is hard.

"Mostly when someone gets mad at me, I'll get even more mad at them and then start throwing punches and stuff," Alex said. "Sometimes people aren't very nice to me."

Hannah, age 6, likes to draw. She wants to be a worker at Chick-fil-A one day. Pierce adopted her from an orphanage in Easter Europe when she was 2. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Both children have ADHD, anxiety, reactive attachment disorder, bipolar tendencies and sensory processing disorder. Life is hard, and every day is a struggle.

"Things that we take for granted, we get up in the morning, we take a shower, we brush our teeth — for them it's a monumental event," Pierce said.

Ordinary parenting issues like discipline and daily chores are magnified: "They will go into fits, crying, and to use a hyperbole, it's like I'm killing them," she said.

Mental illness is difficult to spot and tough to understand, but experts say acceptance is what these children, and others like them, need most.

Emotional and mental disorders affect us in the way that we feel, in the way that we think, in the way that we act. If you think about it, especially for a kid, that's how you're judged.

–Dwight Hurst, C.M.H.C.

"Emotional and mental disorders affect us in the way that we feel, in the way that we think, in the way that we act," said the children's therapist Dwight Hurst, C.M.H.C., Aspire. "If you think about it, especially for a kid, that's how you're judged."

Pierce said that each day is like pushing the reset button. What worked yesterday might not work today. It also might not work tomorrow. She's had to rethink her dreams for her children.

"Now, my hope and dream is to be able to give my kids the ability to live as normal a life as possible," she said.

Hannah and Alex have regular therapy appointments. Knowing when to seek help can be tricky.

"If you have a question, that's probably a clue right there," Hurst said. "If you're starting to have a question of, 'Is this normal, is it not normal?' That's probably a clue that something is going on."

There may never be a cure, but experts say children with mental illness can have bright futures, especially in supportive families.

Taking it day by day, and being flexible is important. Pierce has learned to improvise, with love as her guide.

For help, there's a free event Saturday that links parents and children with mental health professionals Saturday, May 9, from 10 a.m.-noon at the Northwest Community Center, 1255 Clark Ave. in Salt Lake City.

For more information visit Heather Simonsen is the health reporter for KSL 5 TV. She's been featured in O Magazine, The New York Times, Salt Lake Magazine, Utah Style & Design and local newspapers. She was a spokeswoman for the Olympics and is the mother of three.

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