Darien woman starts mental illness support network group in town

Kimochis, which is a small pillow that helps people express their feelings, are used at Parent Support Network meetings. — Sandra Diamond Fox photo

Having a child with a mental health issue can be all-consuming, according to Darien resident Willow Buscemi. “It can make you feel like you’re all alone in your struggles,” she said.

Buscemi wanted to ensure that those caring for children with a mental health condition know there are others in their community who are in their situation, so she recently trained to start a Parent Support Network in Darien.

The Parent Support Network holds monthly, “confidential, and free meetings for parents or caregivers of children between the ages of one and 24 who struggle with anxiety, depression, mood disorders or other emotional behavioral or mental health problems. The meetings are open only to the primary caregiver of the person with the mental health condition.

There are seven Parent Support Networks in the U.S. — in Oregon, New Jersey, New York, Brookfield, and now, in Darien.

Expressing feelings

Buscemi said while there may be special education parent networks in many towns that are “incredibly supportive, when you narrow it down to a mental health issue, many parents can feel very alone.”

While Facebook is “a good resource that can narrow down others with a very specific diagnosis and find people, they’re not local, so you still feel alone,” she added.

Currently, half a dozen people — who live throughout Fairfield County — have attended the Parent Support Network meetings in Darien. Buscemi wants to grow this number and spread the word that the Darien group exists.

The meetings are open only to the primary caregiver of the person with the mental health condition. “These are the people in the trenches,” said Buscemi, who organizes and leads the meetings.

“The meetings are to talk about our feelings,” said Buscemi.

During the 90-minute meetings, Buscemi makes sure everyone gets enough time to share their story. “Many people are in serious crisis and they have a lot to say,” she said.

At the meetings, each person gets to hold a kimochis, which is a small pillow that helps people express their feelings.

“We have these on each of your chairs,” Buscemi said. There are big and little ones with adjectives sewn on each, such as sad, hurt, scared, silly, and curious.

When it comes time to share their feelings, she will say, “‘Does anyone have a pillow that has a word that you feel today?’ You can pick the pillow you want.” The pillows can also be used as a stress ball during the meetings.

The last 15 minutes of each meeting is designated to exchanging resources, “such as a doctor that you love or hate, or, if your child is at a residential facility, how did that experience go?” she said.

“We want you to know you’re not alone,” she said.

The Parent Support Network of Darien is sponsored by the YWCA of Darien/Norwalk.

Documentary

Buscemi first thought of creating the support network in town after she saw a movie at the Darien Library about a family who has a child with a mental illness.

The movie, called “No Letting Go,” documents the life of Randi Silverman, of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., whose son was struggling with a mental health issue.

Silverman founded the first Parents Support Network.

When Silverman’s middle son was 9, he had anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.

“It was a very isolating and devastating experience,” Silverman said. “I decided that we, as a world, shouldn’t be ashamed of having a child with mental illness.

According to Silverman, one in five children struggle with a diagnosable mental health disorder.

Silverman got very involved in mental health advocacy and started a support group for parents whose children struggled with depression and mood disorder in Westchester County, N.Y., in 2008, called the Parent-to-Parent Support Group. This group was the foundation for the model of the Parent Support Network, which is a program developed through the Youth Mental Health Project.

The Youth Mental Health Project is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to educate, empower and support families around the topic of youth mental health. It operates through a grant from the Monarch Family Foundation, which enables all meetings to be free of charge.

“Our goal is to have a parent support network available in every community, because there are parents in every community who are struggling,” Silverman said. “We are reaching an audience where parents are concerned but their child might not really have a diagnosis.”

She said that her son, who is now 22 and has bipolar disorder, “lives on his own and is doing great.”

“We are really trying to make a difference in the communities,” Silverman said. “We don’t have to struggle by ourselves.”

Those interested in attending a Parent Support Network meeting may send an email to darienpsn@ymhproject.org to RSVP. Child care is not available at meetings.

sfox@darientimes.com