All patients should be able to get a proper diagnosis and medication, regardless of their age, said the mother of a child who was refused treatment by Mental Health Foundation.
PHILIPSBURG–The mother of a young girl who suddenly started behaving erratically and experiencing manic episodes said she had hit a wall asking for psychiatric care from Mental Health Foundation in Cay Hill. “My calls were not treated as urgent. MHF often said my daughter was too young to get help or be sedated, and they recommended I call the police.”
She eventually had to travel abroad to get proper care for her daughter. To protect the privacy of the minor, The Daily Herald has chosen to publish an anonymised interview. The names of family members are known to the editor.
The single mother of one, who shares her home with her mother, said their 12-year-old (grand)daughter had changed overnight. “We never saw it coming. Our little girl started walking strangely, sometimes screaming non-stop, her eyes rolling. We would tell her to stop, we thought that she was pretending.”
The girl was doing well in school, but she got bullied at every school she attended, her mother said. “She is soft-spoken, timid, always smiling, friendly, and many of her classmates are often loud and would yell and take advantage of her. In 2019, one day, a boy beat my daughter up for absolutely no reason. I went to the school and was told by the school secretary that I should not interfere. ‘We will handle it,’ the teacher said. However, nothing was done. I was worried and felt helpless, as I didn’t hear back from the school regarding how they handled the situation.”
In another incident, there was a girl constantly bullying her daughter, the mother recalled. “One day my daughter asked her, ‘Why do you hate me so much?’ The girl snapped and started using derogatory language at her. The following day, when I brought my daughter to school, she pointed out the same girl that was bullying her walking on the sidewalk. As we drove past her, I stopped the car and politely said, ‘Please stop bullying my daughter.’
“The next day I got a warning from the school, stating I had no right to exchange words with the girl, and the school secretary said it was against the school’s policy. The principal was very hard on me and did not believe this girl was a bully. At that moment, I decided my daughter was not returning to that school when she completed her class.”
Writings on the wall
At the next school, her daughter made friends and was doing well in the beginning, the mother said. Then, suddenly, one day, everything changed. “She started cursing, began moving furniture around in her room and throwing items on the floor. My mother and I looked at each other in disbelief. We tried everything to calm her down.”
The first person to be called for help was the school psychologist. “She did her best to try to assist us, but my daughter’s condition got worse,” said the mother, who then contacted the Mental Health Foundation, in January 2021.
“We got an appointment with Dr. Kitty Pelswijk. I explained to her how my daughter often screamed, wrote messages on walls inside our home, that she would hit her head against the wall and had broken many things. Dr. Pelswijk said that she thought it was psychosis, but that she was not sure. She wanted to see my daughter again and said that I would be contacted to schedule a new appointment.”
The mother did not hear back from MHF. “I called again and was told that Dr. Pelswijk was on vacation. That got me upset: Why had she not told us? Why did she not refer us to another doctor while on vacation? I didn’t feel she took my daughter’s condition seriously.”
The mother asked to talk to another psychiatrist, but was told that the only other specialist, Dr. Eric Hoencamp, had a full schedule and was not able to meet with her.
“Over the next weeks, my daughter became delusional, often talking as if she was about to lose her mind,” the desperate mother said. “I would continue to call MHF for help, but my calls were not treated as urgent. MHF would explain that they could not come to my home to calm my daughter unless she were an adult.”
Cries for help
The girl’s mother and grandmother decided to again reach out to the school psychologist, who advised them to speak to Dr. Ilse Kelbrick of PsyCare. “When I called her, Dr. Kelbrick said that the government did not allow her to work as a psychiatrist in St. Maarten. I told her we were desperate and had no one else to turn to. I explained that we feared for our little girl’s life.”
Dr. Kelbrick went to the family’s home that same day, the mother said. “For two hours she sat with my daughter, who was calm around her. Dr. Kelbrick read the messages on the walls and saw the damage in our home. It was clear to her that my daughter suffered from trauma and needed medication to sleep through the night. I then had to get that medication from another doctor. The medicine worked, and for the first time in a long time, my daughter finally slept until the morning.”
Dr. Kelbrick advised the family to keep trying to get an appointment at MHF, the mother said. “I met with Dr. Pelswijk once more but was unhappy with the session. She was more concerned that I had contacted Psycare than about my daughter’s well-being.”
The mother requested the help of a psychologist at the Mental Health Foundation, who started counselling her daughter weekly. “The psychologist came to our home. After a few weeks, it became clear that counselling was not enough; my daughter’s behaviour got worse. Although the psychologist did acknowledge that my daughter’s situation was urgent, I did not receive a report regarding what she thought was wrong with my daughter. She provided no diagnosis or recommendations.”
Situation gets out of hand
The mother said she became more frustrated. “One early morning, around 1:00am, my daughter was screaming uncontrollably. The phone operator at MHF could hear her yell. I explained I needed help right away to calm her down. I was put in touch with Dr. Pelswijk who told me to use the medication which I had received from a doctor on the advice of Dr. Kelbrick. I explained that this is a sleep aid, and that this only helps if my daughter is calm. Dr. Pelswijk said there was nothing she could do.”
Panicked, the mother called an MHF nurse on his cell phone. “He said he could not do anything. He suggested calling the police or school psychologist and ended our conversation.” The police were then called. “The school psychologist also came and remained with my daughter until she fell asleep,” the mother said.
The 12-year-old continued to get worse. “She started running out of the house. My neighbours would help hold her and return her home,” the mother said.
“On several occasions, she became so violent that the police had to take her down to the police station in Philipsburg, where they sat with her, waiting for her to calm down, before returning her home. Sometimes, I would exhaustingly take her to the station myself when she became too much for me to handle. The last time I called the police, they told me, ‘Sorry, there is nothing we can do, this is a case for MHF.’”
Family travels abroad
The mother had sent videos to her daughter’s father who lives abroad. “In July 2021 he came to St. Maarten. He was in complete shock when she started cursing, yelling and breaking things at the hotel where he was staying. Her father called a family member who works at a university hospital and was told to bring her. I took a 3-month leave of absence without pay from my job and the three of us left the island.”
The day the family arrived at their destination, the girl was admitted for overnight observation at the hospital, where a psychiatrist examined her. She was then under the supervision of the head of psychiatry, who rendered a diagnosis and gave her medication.
Mother and daughter were off-island for nine weeks. “I had no choice, because my daughter needed to complete her treatment,” her mother said. “While receiving treatment, we celebrated her birthday, and she was happy. Her grandfather, cousins, and aunts made it a festive event. The family had lovingly been so supportive during the entire treatment period. When my daughter had a crisis, everyone helped calm her down until she was brought to the hospital for further assistance.”
When the girl was stable enough to travel, mother and daughter returned to St. Maarten. “I remained home with her to observe her behaviour for an additional three weeks to ensure there were no more outbursts before I returned to work. Luckily my company was very supportive, understanding, they let me keep my job.”
Expenses paid out of pocket
The mother said she was thankful to have her daughter back. “It was an expensive trip costing us a substantial amount for medical attention, therapy, transportation and our stay at a hotel, but it was worth it.” The parents had to pay all expenses out of pocket; the mother’s health insurance in St. Maarten did not cover the cost.
“After this experience, I am extremely worried about other children and adults with mental health issues,” the mother said. “We have been through hell, and I thought I was losing my child. I am sure other parents are going through hell as well.”
The public does not often hear about mental health stories, but they exist on the island, the mother said. “If this was my experience with MHF, then how are they treating other cases? MHF must improve its services, because no one was qualified to assist my daughter. Had I not left the island to seek care for my daughter, her condition would have worsened.”
There needs to be a facility in St. Maarten where patients are admitted for observation regardless of the patient’s age, the mother said. “All I heard from MHF was, ‘We can’t help your daughter because she is too young.’ However, all patients should be able to get a proper diagnosis and medication, and we definitely lack that from MHF in St. Maarten.”