Cora’s Mental Health Journey: From Crisis to Advocacy

August 1, 2018

Cora faced many barriers to getting treatment for a mental illness and almost died. Together, we can ensure that more kids and teens in the Rocky Mountain region get the right care at the right time.

“I’m fat.”

“Why would anyone want to be my friend?”

These were the thoughts that would race through Cora’s head as she lay awake at night, overcome with anxiety.

Growing up, Cora loved to read. Her family liked to travel, volunteer and play baseball together. But in sixth grade, Cora started feeling insecure. Classmates called her fat. By seventh grade, she felt worthless. In eighth grade, Cora decided that in order to be happy, she needed to be skinny.

She started by eating only salads. Slowly, she cut out the protein, then vegetables, then dressing. She thought this was normal.

“I never thought anything was wrong,” Cora said, looking back on that time.

Cora no longer wanted to spend time with people. She started doing everything alone and in secret. Her parents knew something was wrong. They tried to find treatment for her, but psychiatrists told Cora that she was just experiencing stress.

“You don’t have a reason to be sad,” they said. Therapy wasn’t helping, and Cora learned what to say to trick counselors into thinking she would change.

The right diagnosis

By the middle of eighth grade, Cora was surviving on six crackers a day. Her daily routine included exercising three times and weighing herself every three hours. Her heart rate dropped to dangerous levels. Her parents didn’t know where to turn and feared for her life.

Finally, they learned about the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado. But every treatment program was full.

“Cora needed help right away, or she would die. Every minute counted,” said her mom, Caroline.

After waiting for two weeks, Cora got an appointment at Children’s Colorado. Caregivers diagnosed her with depression and an eating disorder. They told her that one-third of kids with eating disorders do not survive.

Finally, Cora entered a five-week treatment program at Children’s Colorado. It wasn’t easy, but she did intensive group and private therapy sessions, all day every day. Her caregivers did not give up on her.

With support and dedication from the team of pediatric mental health experts, Cora started to recognize that she had a mental illness. For the first time, she couldn’t trick therapists into thinking she would change. She couldn’t say what she thought they wanted to hear, but instead learned to be vulnerable. Once she started to see that her habits were unhealthy, Cora felt empowered to take steps toward living with her mental illness.

A mental health crisis

It took a lot of work to get Cora on the right track. Despite the fact that her parents knew the warning signs and did everything in their power to help, they still struggled to get their daughter the resources she desperately needed.

“I was shocked by how very few good mental health services there are for kids,” Cora said, recalling the many psychiatrists she saw before coming to Children’s Colorado.

Colorado ranks third in the nation for the number of kids who need mental health services, but cannot access it. Families face barrier after barrier to accessing care. Tragically, suicide is the leading cause of death among Colorado kids ages 10 to 14.

Unlike other states, Colorado does not have an established, interconnected pediatric mental health system. Every provider, facility and organization works independently. Screenings and treatment vary from provider to provider. Primary care providers aren’t equipped to treat mental health, but are often the first place a family goes for help. All of these factors make it very confusing for families who attempt to navigate “the system” to get help. Some never receive treatment.

The power of philanthropy

Children’s Colorado has a plan to change this. With donor support, Children’s Colorado will redesign the Pediatric Mental Health Institute to better serve more kids and teens. Together, we will equip primary care providers and adults with the knowledge and tools to recognize a mental health disorder early on. Mental illness is one of the most common conditions among children, but it is also treatable. Like a physical health problem, the earlier treated the better.

Cora finished her program, and today she goes to outpatient therapy every two weeks. Life is not perfect after treatment – she will manage her depression and eating disorder for the rest of her life. But she now has the resiliency and skills to do it.

Because of her journey, Cora is determined to raise money and awareness for mental health. As a member for the Youth Advisory Board at the Pediatric Mental Health Institute, she helps educate the community about the lack of good treatment options and works to create a better system for kids struggling with mental health issues.

“We need better services, and I’m determined to help get us there,” Cora said.

With your support, more kids and teens will have the same opportunities to succeed as Cora. Join Cora and Children’s Hospital Colorado as we transform pediatric mental health.